NSA Violates Court Order by Deleting Data It Was Supposed to Preserve

The NSA shows once again why it’s such a trustworthy agency.

The National Security Agency destroyed surveillance data it pledged to preserve in connection with pending lawsuits and apparently never took some of the steps it told a federal court it had taken to make sure the information wasn’t destroyed, according to recent court filings.

Word of the NSA’s foul-up is emerging just as Congress has extended for six years the legal authority the agency uses for much of its surveillance work conducted through U.S. internet providers and tech firms. President Donald Trump signed that measure into law Friday.

Since 2007, the NSA has been under court orders to preserve data about certain of its surveillance efforts that came under legal attack following disclosures that President George W. Bush ordered warrantless wiretapping of international communications after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. In addition, the agency has made a series of representations in court over the years about how it is complying with its duties.

However, the NSA told U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White in a filing on Thursday night and another little-noticed submission last year that the agency did not preserve the content of internet communications intercepted between 2001 and 2007 under the program Bush ordered. To make matters worse, backup tapes that might have mitigated the failure were erased in 2009, 2011 and 2016, the NSA said.

U.S. Federal Government Set to Further Expand Mass Surveillance

It’s striking that the same congressional Democrats who verbally denounce the current president as a tyrant then vote to grant the executive branch extremely unjust surveillance authority. U.S. citizens, I encourage you to call the Senate and tell them to vote no on this mass surveillance bill. The Capitol Switchboard number is (202) 804-3305.

With the Senate set to cast its first votes on a bill that reauthorizes and expands the government’s already vast warrantless spying program in a matter of hours, civil libertarians on Tuesday launched a last-ditch effort to rally opposition to the legislation and demand that lawmakers protect Americans’ constitutional right to privacy.

Fight for the Future (FTF), one of many advocacy groups pressuring lawmakers to stop the mass surveillance bill in its tracks, notes that “just 41 senators can stop” the bill from passing.

“In the age of federal misconduct, every member of Congress must move right now to stop the government’s abuse of the internet to monitor everyone; they must safeguard our freedom and the U.S. Constitution,” FTF urged.

The FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017 (S.139)—passed by the House last week with the revealing but not surprising help of 65 Democrats—would renew Section 702 of FISA, set to expire this Friday.

As The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald notes, “numerous Senate Democrats are poised” to join their House colleagues in voting to re-up Section 702, thus violating “the privacy rights of everyone in the United States” and handing President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions sprawling spying powers.

The Senate’s first procedural vote on a cloture motion is expected at 5:30pm ET. If the motion is approved, the path will be clear for the bill to hit the Senate floor.

“Every member of Congress is going to have to decide whether to protect Americans’ privacy, and shield vulnerable communities from unconstitutional targeting, or to leave unconstitutional spying authority in Trump’s—and Jeff Sessions’—hands,” the advocacy group Indivisible notes.

Icelandic Law Now Punishes Companies for Paying Women Less Than Men

Punishing gender discrimination is good news out of Iceland, and it serves as a model for other countries.

Iceland began the new year by becoming the first country in the world to mandate that all its companies must pay men and women equally. Following years of passing legislation promoting equal pay, employers that fail to ensure pay parity will now be subject to fines, thanks to a law passed last spring that went into effect Monday.

“We have had legislation saying that pay should be equal for men and women for decades now but we still have a pay gap,” Dagny Osk Aradottir Pind of the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association told Al Jazeera. “We have managed to raise awareness, and we have managed to get to the point that people realize that the legislation we have had in place is not working, and we need to do something more.”

Under the new law, companies that employ more than 25 people will have to prove to the government that they’re paying men and women equally. Officials hope the move will help Iceland to completely close its gender wage gap by 2020.

Iceland has long been admired by progressives as a model of gender equality, filling nearly 50 percent of its parliament seats with women. Supporters of the new law say it couldn’t have been put into action without the strong presence of female lawmakers.

For the past nine years, the small island country has been the world’s highest-ranking nation in terms of gender equality according to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report. Iceland has managed to close its gender gap by about 10 percent since the report was first compiled in 2006, according to the WEF’s markers which include political empowerment, economic opportunity, and education access as well as compensation.

As Iceland makes strides in its gender equality goals, the United States’ gender wage gap has been narrowing slowly, with women earning 83 percent of men’s salaries. The U.S. ranks at number 49 on the WEF’s list; less than 20 percent of members of Congress are women.

According to the American Association of University Women, at the wage gap’s current rate of narrowing, American women would have to wait until 2119 to be paid equally to their male counterparts. The Trump administration has shown little interest in improving the gap, with the president suspending an Obama-era rule which required employers to provide the government with pay equity data.

Supporters congratulated Iceland on its new system while lamenting the United States’ failure to take similar steps.

Trump Regime Judges Set to Try to Worsen America for Years

The judges being appointed by the Trump regime may prove to be a substantially negative force for decades. The judiciary is too often overlooked when policy decisions are examined, and a lot of the horrible judges that have been appointed recently will lend credence to that truth in the months ahead.

If you want to know why Donald Trump’s appointments to the judiciary are so significant, have a look at these numbers.

In 2015, the US supreme court decided approximately 82 cases. In 2016, it was approximately 69. In contrast, the United States courts of appeals decided 52,000 cases in 2015 and 58,000 in 2016. The United States district courts decided 353,000 cases in 2015 and 355,000 in 2016.

While the supreme court is the court of last resort – and the one that attracts most attention – the judicial business of the United States is decided in what are called “the lower courts”. The judges appointed to these courts decide 99.9% of all cases.

Most cases never reach the supreme court. It is the so-called lower courts that play a critical role in deciding a wide range of issues. These judges have decided cases involving voting rights, contraception, privacy, sentencing, prisoner rights, gay rights, immigration, desegregation in schools and housing, employment discrimination, affirmative action, workplace rules, environmental impacts, and many others that shape US society. The impact of their decisions are felt daily by more than 300 million Americans.

This is the background needed to understand the importance of Trump’s judicial nominations during his first year in office. Much has been made of the administration’s legislative failures but Trump’s judicial appointments are calculated to have a more lasting impact on American life than many if not all of his proposed legislative initiatives.

Unlike legislation, these life-time appointments are not reversible. That is why it is so important to scrutinize who he is placing on these benches, and what impact they will have.

There are now approximately 144 vacancies in the federal courts, and Trump has already succeeded in appointing 14 judges, meaning that he began his term with more than 150 vacancies –10% of the federal judiciary.

There is a simple reason this president had so many vacancies to fill at the start of his term – it is called political obstruction. In the final year of the Obama administration, the Republican majority simply refused to confirm many of the president’s nominees.

[…]

When Obama took office, 10 of the 13 courts of appeals consisted of predominantly Republican-appointed judges. By the time he left office eight years later, only four of these courts were made up of predominantly Republican-appointed judges.

Trump and his close advisors see this as the principal reason these courts rejected his travel bans, or had earlier rejected efforts to enforce strict voter ID laws, transgender and gay rights, or to limit the availability of contraception coverage and abortion services.

If he can shift the balance of the appellate courts, he believes that he will be able to obtain more favourable rulings on all of these and other key social issues. These rulings could dramatically shape the course of American social and cultural life over the next 30 or 40 years.

As with what else the Trump/Republican government is doing to increase the plight of most people, the judicial appointments are unusually terrible. There’s a Trump judicial nominee that equates denying civil rights to African Americans to denying civil rights to aborted fetuses, and there’s another Trump nominee that supports “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ young people, for instance. That is off the spectrum of cruelly inappropriate in the modern era.

It’s possible for the Congress to remove the appointed judges, but that doesn’t have much historical precedent and it would require a really good Congress anyway. In all, it’s quite telling that the current Senate Majority Leader — a servant of Koch Industries and other grotesque major corporations — named his approval of right-wing judges his biggest “accomplishment.” Notably, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch — an obvious plagiarist — will soon probably show to have a devastating impact, as a Supreme Court case that could significantly damage public sector unions comes up.

Lots of bad news looks to continue in the near future then, but it’s important to remember that there is opportunity in every crisis.

Norway to Decriminalize Drugs

Automatically treating addictions as crimes (instead of as health problems) is stupidity in public policy. Helping people receive treatment for drug problems is far superior to locking them up in a cage.

Norway is to become the first Scandinavian country to decriminalise drugs as it focuses on treatment rather than punishment.

The majority of the Norwegian parliament, the Storting, backed the historic shift which was supported by the Conservatives (Hoyre), Liberals (Venstre), the Labor Party (Ap) and the Socialist Left (SV).

They directed the national government to reform its policies on drugs.

Sveinung Stensland, deputy chairman of the Storting Health Committee, told Norwegian publication VG: “It is important to emphasise that we do not legalise cannabis and other drugs, but we decriminalise.

“The change will take some time, but that means a changed vision: those who have a substance abuse problem should be treated as ill, and not as criminals with classical sanctions such as fines and imprisonment.”

The Norwegian Health Committee is planning a trip to Portugal in February, which decriminalised personal possession of drugs in 2001. The country made the move following a heroin epidemic and the highest drug-related Aids deaths in the European Union (EU).

It now has the second lowest drug-related deaths in the EU.

Norway could join other countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands, Uruguay, and certain US states including California and Colorado, which have liberalised drug laws.

The Trial That Could Shape the Future of Free Speech and Protest in the U.S.

There are people who now face decades in prison for merely being at a protest. This runs counter to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which supports the right of people to peacefully protest, but even if that wasn’t true, the J20 Trial would still be absurd.

Final arguments are underway today in Washington, D.C., in a case that could shape the future of free speech and the right to protest in the United States: the first trial of the nearly 200 people arrested during President Donald Trump’s inauguration. As demonstrators, journalists and observers gathered in Northwest D.C. after the inauguration on January 20, some separated from the group and vandalized nearby businesses and vehicles. Police officers then swept hundreds of people in the vicinity into a blockaded corner in a process known as “kettling,” where they carried out mass arrests of everyone in the area. The first so-called J20 trial could go to a jury as early as today, and involves six people, including one journalist, Alexei Wood, a freelance photojournalist. The defendants face multiple felony and misdemeanor charges, including multiple counts of destruction of property. Evidence against the defendants has been scant.

The Republican Congress’s Massive Tax Scam

The Republican Congress is trying to ram through legislation that benefits the rich at the expense of some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. It is clearly the single most blatant giveaway to the wealthy and large corporations that has occurred in a long time. It is legislation so reprehensible that it can have a stunning effect on those already struggling to deal with so much suffering.

The way to approach detailed analysis of this type of political atrocity is to systematically break it down, so as to prevent it from be too overwhelming to look at. A first note is to observe that there was a House of Representatives version and a Senate version, both of which manage to be uniquely horrifying by having different cruel provisions.

In both versions however, the repeal of the estate tax is a big example of a handout to the richest people in the country. The estate tax only affects two tenths of one percent of the population — in other worlds, only an extremely small minority of people pay the estate tax. The idea that small family farmers pay it is a myth. The exemptions are also large — $11 million for a couple and $5 million per person — is currently allowed to be exempted, and the majority of the richest people in the U.S. are already married.

Another part of the estate tax’s relevance is that it provides an incentive for rich people to do something with their money, as there will be a fair number of people who would rather decide themselves what to do with their money than have the government decide after their deaths. The foundations and organizations rich people create are not always beneficial to the general public, but there are times when they are, and it would be a shame for that to be replaced by rich people letting even higher amounts of cash sit idle.

Use of the phrase “death tax” constitutes a propaganda term designed to provide a negative connotation to taxing extreme wealth. The alternative to saying that is to call it a Billionaire’s Tax, which in large part is what it actually is.

In any case, a lot of rich people are able to escape the estate tax through the loophole-ridden U.S. tax code anyway. That’s an argument for improving it instead of eliminating it, however. The estate tax brings in an estimated $20 billion a year, which – while not the biggest sum of money in the federal budget – still adds up to $200 billion (twice the Department of Education’s annual budget) at today’s rate over the next decade. With literally trillions of dollars worth of wealth about to be inherited over the next several decades, that number should increase substantially though.

There is also the desire to prevent an oligarchic form of society dominated by inherited wealth. The U.S. was formed in part due to revolts against the unjust control exerted by the British monarchy, which of course provides a similarly parallel example of too much inherited power. The U.S. is already either an oligarchic society or as close to being one as possible, with even elite academic research out of Princeton effectively verifying this. A small number of billionaires already exert tremendous control over various aspects of American society, and removing the estate tax will itself make that dynamic even more difficult to change.

The top 1 percent already control more wealth (at about 40 percent of the U.S. total) than the bottom 95 percent of the U.S. population. In particular, the top 0.1 percent now have the same wealth as the bottom 90 percent of the U.S. population. Income inequality also feeds into the notion of an economic oligarchy, with the top 1 percent – the richest 3 million people in a country of 330 million – receiving over 20 percent of all income. This top 1 percent – and it really is a story of the top 1 percent, as the data shows and as Occupy Wall Street accurately described – receives about half of all new income too, which shows who the economic system is primarily working to advance is.

These are levels of American economic inequality that haven’t been seen since the later part of the 1920s, and – remembering the disastrous Great Depression that followed – they are not levels that should be still here, much less be made worse.

Furthermore, the tax scheme’s deductions basically amount to a smokescreen and a talking point for puppets of the plutocratic class (Republicans in Congress advocating the tax scam) to try to convince the middle and working class that the legislation is in their interests. We could run through the deduction numbers of why the Republican Congress is again dedicating itself to serving the interests of extreme concentrated wealth at length, but the rest of the legislation alone should provide ample evidence to whom the tax scheme was actually designed for.

In a few points, raising the deductions loses relevance when the taxes on the middle class are also being raised. The added deductions therefore aren’t enough to make much – if any – of a positive difference for the middle class and poor. The Republican officials are simply trying to appeal to the middle class using baseless rhetoric because their actual economic policies cannot win enough votes.

The repeal of the individual mandate would lead to an estimated 13 million people losing their health insurance, which would also lead to increased healthcare costs via higher premiums for many people. The individual mandate is an unfortunate necessity because it has stabilizing effects on the largely mediocre, bureaucratic, and inefficient U.S. healthcare system. Millions less people without health insurance could quite likely mean that the rich are allowed to keep more money while the healthcare system is destabilized, but it isn’t entirely clear why this repeal was included in the tax scheme. It’s probably multiple nefarious reasons though.

Lowering the corporate income tax is another significant element. The U.S. may have among the highest statutory corporate tax rates at 35 percent, which is something of a memento of what it was during the generally better economic days of the mid-20th century’s golden era of regulated capitalism, but the U.S. has plenty of deductions that make the actual rate a lot lower. The effective corporate tax rate in the U.S. is actually somewhere around 17 percent on average, which puts the country towards the lower end of the OECD corporate tax spectrum. Lowering the corporate tax rate to 20 percent will probably mean loopholes in the tax code will drive that effective rate down to even lower levels, which would them force more of the general public to pay higher expenses for important government programs.

Lowering the tax rates of income from pass-through corporations is another giveaway to rich people. Using pass-through corporations would allow rich people to lower their income taxes through passing their income through those specific corporations. That would provide an incentive to use pass-through corporations that has no rational economic justification, but this is largely designed for the crony currently sitting in the White House.

Bringing back the estimated $2.6 trillion in corporate profits overseas to be taxed at a low rate is the definition of corporate welfare. Instead of being punished for immorally exploiting the loophole in the tax code, the repatriation of these huge corporate profits rewards corporate misbehavior. This experiment of lowering the corporate tax rate has already been done before, and it’s already been shown as a failure for boosting investment. Higher corporate profits have no correlation with increased investment historically. The Republican Congress is evidently willing to substantially raise taxes on struggling graduate students instead of large corporations anyway though.

Overall, it’s daunting that there’s actually a tax plan being pushed that would give even more money to the rich when they’ve done enormously well over the last four decades of upwards redistribution. The estimates are now that the top 1 percent would be gaining 75 percent of the benefits by the time the tax scheme is fully phased in by 2027. That’s class warfare in a nutshell, and robust public interest organization is the only mechanism that will reverse it.