Today President Obama will meet with the newly constituted Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to take the first steps in the direction of having that “debate” over the proper balance between liberty and security that he says he wants, in the wake of revelations about NSA surveillance programs. It’s unclear how significant meeting with this board — which is designed to review terrorism programs to ensure attention to privacy concerns — will prove.
But buried in the White House guidance from a senior administration official about the event is a real piece of news: the White House has directed the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department to look at whether to declassify Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions authorizing the NSA surveillance programs.
The senior official says that the DNI and DOJ have been directed “to review Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions and filings relevant to the programs and to determine what additional information the Government can responsibly share about the sensitive and necessarily classified activities undertaken to keep the public safe.”
As you know, a coalition of conservative libertarians and civil liberties liberals in Congress are pushing for legislation that would compel the declassification of FISA court opinions, and is asking the Obama administration to declassify them himself. The idea is to make a debate about the legal rationale for these programs possible. So in one sense, the fact that the President has asked for an internal review designed to move things in this direction is a good development. However, civil libertarians note that the administration has made this promise before.
“If the administration is considering releasing more information about the NSA’s surveillance activities, that’s a welcome development,” Jameel Jaffer, a leading attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, emails me. “I’d note, though, that the administration said it would consider this possibility several years ago and nothing came of it. So while we appreciate the gesture towards transparency, we’ll wait to see what’s actually released.”
This comes as the Guardian reported late yesterday that it had obtained two government requests for FISA court authorization — which were granted — that show the NSA was given broader leeway to examine data on domestic communications than has been previously known. Jaffer says the latest revelations add new urgency to the push for declassification.
To be clear, what’s at issue here is how the administration, and the FISA court, are interpreting the law to justify such broad surveillance. The interpretation of the law itself is currently shrouded in secrecy. Until that changes, there is no way to meaningfully debate the legal rationale for the programs, let alone the desirability of the programs themselves. Obama has allowed that concern over the secrecy of this rationale is “legitimate,” and it’s good to see a first step in the direction of more transparency, but it’s only a first step.
* FARM BILL DEBACLE IS A VERY BAD OMEN: Jake Sherman’s big piece this morning sums up the larger meaning of yesterday’s failure of the farm bill in the House:
The defeat of the farm bill — after both parties were privately bullish it would pass with large margins — shows, once again, how massively dysfunctional the House and its leadership has become. And it plainly reveals that a bipartisan rewrite of the nation’s complex and politically charged immigration laws are a pipe dream in the House, at least for now. Preventing a government shutdown and debt limit fight are not far behind.
As Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein put it yesterday, this again shows the House GOP leadership simply can’t count on support from conservatives and must rely on Dems to pass major legislation. On immigration, this means John Boehner may face a stark choice: let something close to the Senate bill pass with mostly Dems, or take the blame for killing it.
Or, as Steve Benen puts it, Boehner will have to choose between relying on Democrats and failure.
* NO, FARM BILL DEBACLE WAS NOT FAULT OF DEMOCRATS: The House GOP leadership continues to blame Democrats for not supplying enough votes to offset conservative defections (yes, that really is the argument). But Paul Kane’s tick tock on what actually happened shows clearly that Nancy Pelosi flatly warned that the bill’s deep cuts to food stamps would make it a nonstarter among Dems, and not only that, Republicans responded to this by adding more stringent work requirements for food stamps to the bill.
Conservatives opposed the bill, anyway. Which may leave the GOP leadership with one option for getting the farm bill passed: “The leaders could instead move the legislation to the left and remove some of the cuts to the food stamp program, taking away GOP support in a bid to pick up a few dozen Democratic votes.”
* LOBBYISTS STUNNED AT FARM BILL DEBACLE: The Hill has an interesting look at the reaction of agriculture industry lobbyists to the defeat of the farm bill, and what it says about the prospects for passing this bill in the future. The basic problem is that conservatives hell bent on cutting spending no matter what the consequences are insisting food stamp money and agriculture subsidies be separated from one another, imperiling the coalition of urban liberals and rural moderates that historically have supported farm bills.
As one environmentalist succinctly put it, Dems are never going to support cutting “two million people from food stamps to fund subsidies for rich farmers.”
* BILL O’REILLY ENDORSES IMMIGRATION BILL: Marco Rubio’s office is circulating video of the Fox News commentator getting behind the immigration bill as it currently stands with the added Hoeven/Corker amendment toughening up its border security provisions. That’s definitely a big boost for the bill, and note in particular O’Reilly’s suggestion that because of the bill, a “secure border is within reach.”
Fox, interestingly, never really waged a jihad against immigration reform, another reason we perhaps may not see the widely predicted conservative backlash rear up in quite as fearsome a way many expected.
* OBAMA PRESSED FOR DEFEAT OF “HARD TRIGGER”: Multiple reports this morning claim that Obama, in conversations with Dem Senators, privately underscored his opposition to the 90 percent border apprehension rate “hard trigger” for citizenship being pushed by conservatives. This will figure in the debate: “Hard trigger” diehard John Cornyn is already drawing attention to it, which suggests conservatives will use this news to cast doubt on the emerging bill’s security bona fides and to stamp Obama’s face on the bill to rile up the base against it.
But Schumer has been saying the “hard trigger” is a non-starter since at least last week.
* QUOTE OF THE DAY, IMMIGRATION REFORM EDITION: Pro-reform Republican Lindsey Graham offers an apt description of the Corker/Hoeven amendment, which would provide 20,000 more border agents and 700 miles of fence:
“Literally, it will almost militarize the border as a surge.”
But will that be enough? The question remains: Is there any level of increased security, short of amendments deliberately designed to kill the bill, that will be enough to get House Republicans to accept citizenship?
* AND TED CRUZ’S CASUAL FALSEHOODS: Glenn Kessler disembowels Ted Cruz’s latest casual dissembling about immigration reform: The claim that because newly legalized immigrants would not qualify for Obamacare subsidies, that creates an incentive for employers to hire them over American citizens. This is another sign — along with Cruz’s recent suggestion that we should oppose reform for the sake of undocumented immigrants — that he’s simply run out of arguments.