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Published: Sun, 18 Feb 2018 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 18 Feb 2018 13:46:48 -0500


White House Won't Declassify Dems' Memo on Campaign Surveillance—at Least Not Yet

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 21:15:00 -0500

(image) The White House has alerted Congress it will not yet declassify the memo put together by House Democrats that provided their own interpretation of the circumstances of the federal surveillance of a Donald Trump aide during and following the 2016 president election.

The letter from White House Counsel Donald McGahn explained, "The Department [of Justice] has identified portions of the February 5th Memorandum the disclosure of which it believes would create especially significant concerns for the national security and law enforcement interests."

The letter concludes that President Trump wants to ultimately declassify the memo and has asked the Justice Department to assist the Intelligence Committee to make any changes or redactions needed. There was a second letter that was not publicly disclosed (no doubt due to the classified information within) detailing to the House Intelligence Committee the problems they have with releasing the memo.

This memo was put together by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Democrats in the House Intelligence Committee in direct response to the four-page memo by staff of Intelligence Chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). The Nunes memo claimed that the FBI concealed from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court the politicized roots of the "Steele dossier" used to justify snooping on aide Carter Page in order to investigate his ties to Russia.

Democrats wrote a longer memo that purportedly explains that the FBI were not reliant on the dossier as the sole piece of evidence to convince the court to authorize a wiretap and that the court did know about the dossier's political background. But obviously we do not at this point know what the additional evidence is.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) quickly jumped on Twitter to say he disagreed with the White House's decision:

Trump earlier today said that the memo would be released soon. So we'll have to see if they work things out. Read the response from McGahn here.

In Memoriam: The GOP Pretending to Care About Fiscal Restraint

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 17:10:00 -0500

Congress is "spending us into oblivion," Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in a blistering speech on the Senate floor yesterday.

This morning, President Donald Trump signed a massive new spending bill that will increase the discretionary budget by about $400 billion.

In memoriam: The GOP once actually pretended to care about fiscal restraint.

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Please Enjoy These Videos of Paul Ryan Being Concerned About Debt and Overspending

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 10:15:00 -0500

Apropos of nothing in particular, here's a video of then–House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) praising a bipartisan agreement to place limits on federal spending: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> That was in 2011. Ryan was pumped about a "huge cultural change" for Congress, which for years had ignored soaring deficits but now had passed the Budget Control Act, which capped future spending on the military and discretionary programs. Neither party was particularly happy with the agreement, but to Ryan that was a good thing, because it meant everyone had to take some medicine. "Both parties got us in this mess," he said. "Both parties are going to have to work together to get us out of this mess." "The real problem is the fact that we spend way more money than we take in," he noted. "We have to address that." Fast-forward to 2018. Ryan is now Speaker of the House, a position from which he could, in fact, address that. The economy is humming along, unemployment is low, and he just helped pass a tax reform package that Republicans have been clamoring after for the better part of two decades. Time to trim some more fat, work on balancing the budget, and maybe even take a whack at solving the impossible problem of entitlement reform, right? Nah. Instead, the onetime budget hawk presided over the pre-dawn passage of a budget bill that makes mincemeat of the very spending caps Ryan championed seven years ago. The budget will grow government spending by about $400 billion this year, and it includes an $165 billion boost for the Pentagon over the next two years. (The latter increase is driven almost entirely by Republicans' gut feeling that the military is underfunded; there is still no completed Pentagon audit.) The new budget will add an estimated $1.7 trillion to the federal debt in the next decade and will cause the Treasury to run a trillion-dollar deficit every year for the foreseeable future, according to a nonpartisan analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The red line on the chart above is the spending cap that Ryan was cheering in 2011. The two light blue columns on the right are the spending plan that Ryan just shepherded to President Donald Trump's desk without so much as a hint of concern about spending "way more money than we take in." It's no surprise to see politicians change their agendas over time, particularly after moving from the minority to the majority. But Ryan's transformation from a budget-conscious Dr. Jekyll to a debt-junkie Mr. Hyde is uniquely remarkable. "If you were against President Obama's deficits, and now you're for the Republican deficits, isn't that the very definition of hypocrisy?" asked Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) during his valiant-but-futile effort to hold up the budget bill in the Senate last night. And what if "you" literally made your name in Congress by drafting alternative federal budgets during the Obama years that aimed to bring some measure of balance to the budget? It was a flawed plan, but it was a plan. Now "you're for" a budget bill that annihilates years of difficult work that achieved modest budgetary gains, one that piles up trillions of dollars of new borrowing to be paid by future generations of Americans. What would we call that? I don't know, but it's what we should start calling Paul Ryan. Here's a bonus video of Ryan in July 2011 issuing a dire warning about the country's future: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> "We are driving our country and our economy off of a cliff," he said. "The reason is that we are spending so much more money than we have. We can't keep spending money we don't have." Yes. That's exactly the problem. And you just made it worse.[...]

Can the Freedom Caucus Kill the Deficit-Busting Budget Deal?

Thu, 08 Feb 2018 11:30:00 -0500

When congressional Republicans spent the Obama years warning about the dangers of rising debt and uncontrolled spending, the loudest voices often came from about three dozen lawmakers in the House. That group, the Freedom Caucus, now has the difficult task of facing down a Republican-backed proposal to ramp up spending. The bipartisan budget deal announced yesterday would annihilate Obama-era spending caps in order to boost federal spending by nearly $400 billion. Limits on military spending imposed by the 2013 sequester would be removed, allowing the Pentagon to receive an additional $80 billion this year and $85 billion next year, The Washington Post reports. Other lids on the discretionary budget would be similarly lifted, allowing for billions of new spending on infrastructure, public health, and disaster aid. The two-year budget deal is indeed "a Christmas tree of spending," as Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) warned Wednesday during an appearance on MSNBC. Meadows and his fellow budget hawks have been able to use their influence in the House GOP conference to nudge some policies in a more libertarian direction this session, but with very limited success. They complicated the passage of a mass surveillance reauthorization package, and they forced some changes to the ill-fated "repeal and replace" health care plan. But the caucus completely folded to the leadership on a tax bill that promised to increase the federal deficit by more than $1 trillion dollars, and it did nothing to stop the October passage of a temporary budget deal foreshadowing this week's proposal to make it rain for the Pentagon (and everyone else). Now the Freedom Caucus says it is officially opposed to the budget deal: Official position: HFC opposes the caps deal. We support funding our troops, but growing the size of government by 13 percent is not what the voters sent us here to do. — House Freedom Caucus (@freedomcaucus) February 8, 2018 Some individual members of the group are also saying the right things about a budget that virtually guarantees the return of trillion-dollar deficits. In a tweet, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) called the proposal a "disgusting and reckless" bit of "fiscal insanity." Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told The Hill that he was a "hell no" on the spending plan, which he described as a "debt-junkie's dream." Other members, such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), have tried to appeal to Speaker Paul Ryan's supposed interest in reducing deficits. The Freedom Caucus might have lost some of its ability to influence the outcome of the budget deal after going along with the tax bill and last year's spending plan. Republicans convinced themselves—without any hard evidence, not even from the friendliest of policy shops—that the $1.5 trillion tax cut would pay for itself, and now they're being asked to swallow the same fiscal baloney in a different casing. The bill would require borrowing about $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years to finance discretionary spending increases, according to calculations from Keith Hennessey, a former economic advisor to President George W. Bush. Though the budget deal covers only two years, this huge boost in federal spending—50 percent greater than the tax cut passed just two months ago—is likely to be felt for much longer. "If you increase discretionary spending by $150 [billion] per year for each of the next two years, you establish higher expectations and a new benchmark, a new baseline, against which future discretionary spending proposals will be judged," Hennessey points out. Allow this budget to pass, and the damage will linger for decades. How much influence the Freedom Caucus will have over the budget deal will be determined—somewhat ironically—by whether Democrats' appetite for increased spending overwhelmes their interest in immigration policy. "You'll end up with 120 or 140 Democrats and maybe about the same on Republicans sending this to the president's desk," Meadows said Wednesday. This mor[...]

Here's What Rand Paul, Mark Meadows, and Others in Washington Are Saying About the Nunes Memo

Fri, 02 Feb 2018 15:30:00 -0500

"The Memo" is out and the reactions are unfolding in entirely predictable patterns. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, released his short memo today after the White House agreed to its declassification. The document claims that the FBI withheld from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that the "Steele Dossier," used as justification to snoop on former Donald Trump adviser Carter Page, was funded by Democratic Party sources and pushed by FBI officials with an agenda against Trump. (Read it all here.) What are major political players saying? Pretty much what you would have predicted. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calls the memo "partisan spin" and says its release is reckless and will help Russia. Yet she doesn't actually counter any of the claims in the memo itself: .@realDonaldTrump has surrendered his constitutional responsibility as Commander-in-Chief by releasing Nunes' unredacted, classified memo. His decision undermines our national security and is a bouquet to his friend Putin. — Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) February 2, 2018 There are some variations in responses among Republicans. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), no friend of Trump's, does not want the Nunes memo to threaten the investigation of whether Russia colluded with members of Trump's campaign during the election outcomes. McCain, you may recall, might have played a major role in the spread of the contents of the Steele Dossier: The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests—no party's, no president's, only Putin's. The American people deserve to know all of the facts surrounding Russia's ongoing efforts to subvert our democracy, which is why Special Counsel Mueller's investigation must proceed unimpeded. Our nation's elected officials, including the president, must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows. If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin's job for him. As for the Republicans who favor the memo's release, I've been blasting some of them for complaining about secret surveillance when it's connected to Trump while explicitly reauthorizing the use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments to allow the feds to secretly snoop on American citizens. But some Republican lawmakers, like Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), have been philosophically consistent. This tweet may sound like what we've been hearing from other Trump supporters... So, there it is. The FBI took an unverified political dossier, paid for by the Clinton campaign and the DNC, and they used it as a central piece in their request to get a warrant for spying on American citizens and political opponents in the Trump campaign. — Mark Meadows (@RepMarkMeadows) February 2, 2018 ...but Meadows, as a member of the House Freedom Caucus, supported reforms to the FISA amendments that would have put tighter restrictions on using secret surveillance of American citizens. He was overruled by some other Republicans, who now are also acting outraged about the contents of the memo. Unfortunately, those hypocritical politicians end up amplifying those who see this whole thing as a partisan fight intended to either protect or destroy the president. But unlike a lot of the Republicans, Meadows understands this is a bigger issue than just snooping on people close to the president: Last point: If you remember anything from this news cycle, remember: your right as an American to privacy from your government spying on you is critical. It is foundational to who we are as a Republic. Never take that right for granted, no matter the political party you belong to — Mark Meadows (@RepMarkMeadows) February 2, 2018 Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who tried to organize a filibuster to stop FISA from being reauthorized without reforms, applauded the memo's release for similar reasons:[...]

Right To Try Laws Are a Fine Start. Comprehensive Reform of the FDA's Drug Trials Would Be Better.

Fri, 02 Feb 2018 13:35:00 -0500

In his State of the Union address this week, President Trump urged Congress to pass right-to-try legislation that would allow patients suffering from terminal illnesses to access new drugs and other treatments that have undergone preliminary Food and Drug Administration (FDA) safety trials, but have not yet been shown to be efficacious in clinical trials. It's a good start. But it's no substitute for a top-down overhaul of the agency's entire process for testing and approving new drugs. Traditionally, patients only get access to new drug treatments once they are approved by FDA after passing through three phases of clinical trials. The goal of phase 1 trials is to test new compounds for patient tolerabilty and safety. Typically 20 to 100 patients participate in Phase 1 trials. Phase 2 trials aim to determine proper dosage levels for new treatments while also checking for further evidence that the new compound is safe and possibly efficacious. Several hundred patients may be enrolled in Phase 2 trials. Phase 3 trials focus on efficacy and monitor for adverse reactions and may involve thousands of participants. In Phase 3 trials, the efficacy of new medications is often benchmarked against current treatments. One recent report estimates that only 1 in 10 new drugs that enter clinical trials are eventually approved by the FDA. It is noteworthy that only 31 percent of drugs that currently enter Phase 2 studies go on to Phase 3 trials. In other words, more than two-thirds of biopharmaceuticals that pass through Phase 1 safety trials end up being deemed insufficiently efficacious as treatments for the diseases at which they are targeted. So far, 38 states have passed right-to-try legislation. Since drugs and medical treatments are regulated at the federal level, state laws so far have had little apparent effect on enabling patients gain access to experimental treatments. Consequently, right-to-try proponents want Congress to pass legislation that would allow patients with terminal illnesses to seek access to experimental drugs that have passed through Phase 1 safety trials. Many drugmakers have been reluctant to offer treatments not yet approved by the FDA on a right-to-try basis for fear being sued by patients or their heirs should bad outcomes occur. In addition, they worry that any adverse events among right-to-try patients would delay eventual FDA approval. Consequently, the proposed federal legislation provides that the makers of experimental drugs could not be held liable by patients for any untoward outcomes and that FDA regulators would be barred from taking into account the results of right-to-try treatments when reviewing such drugs for approval. Opponents of right-to-try legislation fear that it would enable unscrupulous practitioners to sell the moral equivalent of snake oil to desperate people. In addition, opponents point out that the FDA already has a compassionate use program that allows patients and their physicians expanded access to investigational drugs. New FDA administrator Scott Gottlieb recently announced changes that aim to speed up the process of providing access to drugs and devices for patients with serious conditions (generally prior to product approval), when there is no therapeutic alternative. In addition, the agency provided guidance to drugmakers clarifying that suspected adverse reactions from experimental treatments administered on a right-to-try basis must be reported "only if there is evidence to suggest a causal relationship between the drug and the adverse event." The FDA does also note that greenlighting access to experimental treatments does not require drugmakers to provide them to patients. Right-to-try is at best a band-aid. Comprehensive reform of the clinical trial process is a better and cheaper way to speed new medications to the bedsides of patients. As I have earlier argued: The FDA should be modernized so that new treatments become availabl[...]

White House Releases Declassified Memo Alleging Bias in FBI Surveillance of Trump Campaign Staffer (UPDATE: Dem Memo Details Leaked)

Fri, 02 Feb 2018 13:20:00 -0500

This morning the White House cleared House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to release "The Memo," a document that contends that officials within the Department of Justice deliberately concealed the politically motivated origins of the information behind its surveillance of a Donald Trump advisor during the presidential election. The highlights: The memo says that FBI officials knew that the infamous "Steele dossier" used to get permission by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to snoop on adviser Carter Page had been partly funded through a research firm (Fusion GPS) connected to the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign. They concealed this information from the court. The memo says that some additional information included in the warrant application used to corroborate the "Steele dossier" also actually came from Steele himself that Steele leaked to Michael Isikoff at Yahoo News. Steele was in regular contact with Bruce Ohr, a top DOJ official who really, really didn't want Trump to be elected and said so. The memo claims Ohr's wife assisted in the Trump opposition research used by Fusion GPS. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (who announced his resignation earlier in the week) told the Intelligence Committee in December that a surveillance warrant would not have been sought without the Steele dossier. (The full response from the White House and the memo will be embedded below the fold.) Remember that this is one party's description of what happened with the warrant. The underlying intelligence contained in the warrant application and the warrant itself has not been released. It's also worth the memo's claims in context. Carter Page's ties to Russia were well-known by intelligence officials before he was ever involved with Trump's campaign. And one of the surveillance requests submitted to the court happened in October, after Page's contacts with Russian officials had publicly reported and he stepped down from the campaign. And courts have typically ruled that it's not necessarily disqualifying if the evidence used for a warrant comes from biased sources. Arugably, what's been exposed here is an investigation of Page, not surveillance of the Trump campaign itself or even allegations that Trump himself did anything wrong. This, interestingly enough, is exactly what FBI Director James Comey even told Trump before eventually getting fired. More is going to play out from this, but from my perspective so far, I don't see a smoking gun in any particular direction. This memo doesn't seem to provide any coherent evidence that this investigation of Page was actually a plot to get at Trump. And neither does any of this suggest that Trump himself was engaged in any wrongdoing. Read the memo for yourself below, and response from ranking Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff: FISAWarrant by Scott Shackford on Scribd src="" width="100%" height="600" frameborder="0"> Schiff responds: Lengthy response from @RepAdamSchiff on The Memo: — Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) February 2, 2018 UPDATE: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) defended the release of the memo and said it detailed possible violations of the civil liberties of Americans. It's worth noting that Ryan just last month voted to renew and expand the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments to secretly snoop on American citizens. Speaker Paul Ryan, in a statement, defends the release of the Nunes memo but also calls for the release of the memo prepared by Democrats on the intel committee. — Tamara Keith (@tamarakeithNPR) February 2, 2018 But, hey, he's also calling for the release of the Democrats' own memo. UPDATE II: The New Y[...]

Get Yourself Ready for 'The Memo'—Will It Rock Your World or Put You to Sleep?

Thu, 01 Feb 2018 16:00:00 -0500

This afternoon President Donald Trump read "The Memo." It is likely that soon you'll be reading it too. Maybe Friday. Maybe not. But possibly: Senior White House official comes to back of Air Force One and tells reporters Trump is "OK" releasing the memo and he will tell Congress that "probably tomorrow," per pooler @tparti. Official declined to take any questions or be identified publicly, per pool. — Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) February 1, 2018 "The Memo," depending on whom you ask, provides evidence either that the FBI was out to undermine President Donald Trump or that top Republicans will do anything to undermine the FBI's investigation into allegations of collusion between the Russian government and Trump's campaign. The Memo has been consuming entire news cycles this week, even though we don't fully know what's in the four-page document, which was produced by the staff of House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). We know it argues that the FBI inappropriately used the infamous Steele dossier and concealed its origins as a Democratic opposition tool to get a court's permission to secretly snoop on former Trump aide Carter Page. Whether that's an accurate assessment of what actually happened we don't really know. As Reason's Jacob Sullum has pointed out, based on what we know about Page's interactions with Russian officials, the FBI likely would have been able to produce enough probable cause to get a wiretap approved even without the Steele dossier. Orin Kerr notes that claims of bias in the warrant process may not even matter if the facts themselves provide enough probable cause. I've said much of what I've had to say about the prerelease fight over the memo earlier this week, but for anybody just tuning in: I think it's obviously a partisan-focused fight from two parties trying to discredit the other. But Americans do have a right to know how the surveillance state operates when it's investigating people closely connected to our president. I also still feel terribly frustrated that this debate has virtually no chance of becoming a substantive discussion of how much secret, warrantless domestic surveillance the FBI is already doing in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Instead, the current discussion is entirely about who may be losing or leaving their jobs. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wants Nunes stripped of his chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee. That seems unlikely unless the memo ends up outright humiliating the Republican Party. In addition, now that FBI Director Chris Wray went out on a limb with a public statement that the FBI has "grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy," there are concerns that he might quit if the memo gets released. Recall, Trump selected him to replace James Comey after Trump fired Comey. The never-ending stream of shifting speculation makes the whole story hard to keep tabs on. What will matter is the actual contents of the memo when it's released. If it does come out tomorrow, I (and no doubt dozens of other journalists) will be all over it. In the meantime, Cato surveillance expert Julian Sanchez also feels the pain of the debate we're not having: Let me just register again how heartbreaking it is that we're finally having a huge public debate about surveillance abuse and it's so transparently frivolous that I'm forced to take FBI's side. — Julian Sanchez (@normative) February 1, 2018[...]

Trump Promotes 'Right to Try' Experimental Treatments for Terminally Ill Patients in SOTU Address

Tue, 30 Jan 2018 22:15:00 -0500

(image) President Donald Trump took a moment in his State of the Union address to support a federal law to allow terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs that haven't been fully approved yet by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

It was a short shout-out, but significant:

We also believe that patients with terminal conditions should have access to experimental treatments that could potentially save their lives.

People who are terminally ill should not have to go from country to country to seek a cure—I want to give them a chance right here at home. It is time for the Congress to give these wonderful Americans the "right to try."

Close to 40 states already have laws that allow Americans access to drugs earlier in the testing stage if they've got terminal illnesses. But there's no federal permission, so there are concerns that the FDA and federal enforcement could override state laws.

Congress nearly passed a law last year, but it didn't make it to the finish line. A new lobbying effort launched earlier in January by groups like Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity to try to push it through. According to The Hill, they have an ally in Vice President Mike Pence as well. He signed Indiana's version of the bill into law back when he was governor.

Eric Boehm wrote about last year's efforts and some nanny-ish foot-dragging from legislators who for some reason think that earlier access to drugs could somehow make things worse for people who are dying:

"The legislation being proposed could expose critically ill patients to greater harm," worries Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., minority chairman of the committee. Other Democrats expressed similar worries, even while expressing sympathy for patients who are asking little more than for government to get out of the way during the final days of their lives. There are "very legitimate frustrations with the current system," for allowing patients access ot non-FDA-approved drugs, admitted Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas. But those problems are not a good reason to remove the FDA from the process, Green said.

Currently, the FDA runs a so-called "expanded access" program for terminally ill patients who cannot get into drug trials for various reasons. According to a Government Accountability Office report published in July, FDA had approved 99 percent of the 5,800 requests made from 2012 through 2015 by patients seeking access to the program.

Lack of access, then, is not the problem, but time is. Patients with terminal illnesses can wait as little as a few hours to as long as 30 days for the FDA to respond to a request to try a new drug, according to the GAO, and that wait could ending any slim hope of finding a successful treatment. If you think dealing with bureaucrats is awful when you're standing in line at the DMV or applying for a passport, imagine having to go through that same process when your life is on the line.

These terminally ill people should be able to decide for themselves how much they're willing to risk. Watch below for a look at the "Right to Try" movement from ReasonTV:

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0">

Everybody's Talking About 'The Memo' and Ignoring the Surveillance Debate

Tue, 30 Jan 2018 12:45:00 -0500

The first thing you need to know about "The Memo" is that nobody can truly tell you what you need to know about "The Memo" in advance. That's part of the whole shtick. Here are some basics, though. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), previously an extremely pro-surveillance lawmaker, and his staff in the House Intelligence Committee crafted a four-page memo that claims to show that the FBI abused its surveillance authorities. The memo apparently claims that the FBI misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) with the now-infamous "Steele Dossier" in order to get permission to wiretap former Trump aide Carter Page and his conversations with Russian officials. All of this, they say, was part of a conspiracy to attack the Trump administration. Nunes' memo is currently classified. It has been seen by House lawmakers and, over the weekend, by FBI Director Chris Wray. Last night the House Intelligence Committee voted to begin the process of publicly declassifying and releasing the memo. This starts a five-day clock for Trump to weigh in on if he wants to keep the memo classified. The White House has suggested that it supports the memo's release; we'll see what actually happens. In the meantime, everybody wants to tell you what to think about the memo based on whether they're backers of Team Red or Team Blue. For those of us who are neither and don't care whose ox gets gored (or hope they all do), there are still reasons to care about what's happening, why it's happening, and the overall impact of this fight. Yes, This Memo's Release Is Politically Motivated. That's OK. The Democrats also prepared their own memo explaining what they believed happened with the wiretapping. The Republican-controlled Intelligence Committee declined to release the Democratic version. So only one party here—the party the president belongs to—will be able to publicly represent its interpretation of the surveillance of somebody close to the president. It's silly to pretend that this is not a deliberate effort to undermine the investigation of potentially inappropriate behavior between people close to Trump and foreign governments. It's also silly to deny that the Democrats' sudden insistence that the FBI is beyond reproach (yeah, right) is a deliberate attempt to undermine critique. But there might actually be an upside to all this political posturing. The average American knows very little about how federal surveillance works in practice. A sudden burst of transparency, even one-sided and politically motivated, can at least give everyone a better understanding of how the secretive foreign intelligence court actually works. And for better or worse, Trump is the president of the United States. Secret surveillance of people in the president's orbit by members of his own government is a big deal. It's completely appropriate to reject the idea that we should simply trust that FBI officials are behaving appropriately. They have a very lengthy history of doing otherwise. But the Memo Is Not Going to Tell You What Actually Happened. The Nunes memo is an interpretation of classified intelligence that was used to get authorization to snoop on Page. But it's not the intelligence itself. So if we're willing to acknowledge that part of the motivation to release the memo is to protect Trump, we have to acknowledge that this memo is probably not going to tell the whole story. Do not take this as a demand to keep the memo secret. We should see the memo. We should see the Democrats' memo. And at some point, we should be able to see the underlying intelligence. Note that Trump, as the president of the United States, has wide authority to arrange for the declassification and release of this intelligence information that supposedly has been misapplied in order to snoop on him and undermine his presidency. That little [...]

Here Are 5 Criminal Justice Reform Measures That Americans Say They Support

Fri, 26 Jan 2018 14:30:00 -0500

A new poll shows that Americans really do want to make the criminal justice system much less harsh in several ways. But what does that actually look like? The survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of the Justice Action Network, asked 800 registered voters their opinions about mandatory minimum sentences, bail reform, criminal background checks, and alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent criminals. The good news is that Americans across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support reforms to make justice system less harsh to make it easier for those released from jail to return to a normal life. The poll found that 85 percent of Americans believe that the goal of the criminal justice system should be rehabilitation, not punishment. The Justice Action Network, a group devoted to creating transpartisan coalitions for criminal justice reforms, didn't craft these questions randomly. Many of the queries were directly connected to specific legislative pushes: 1. Mandatory Minimums A full 87 percent of those polled support replacing mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent cases with sentencing ranges, so judges can make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Mandatory minimums are among the most corrosive consequences of the drug war, sending nonviolent offenders to prison for decades. Much of the mercy President Barack Obama and his Department of Justice offered when commuting federal sentences during his second term was directed toward those who had been stuck in prison for mandatory minimum drug sentences. Yet even as Americans are increasingly aware that mandatory minimums have been putting away their neighbors, not scary violent drug lords, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is calling for harsher prosecutions and states are adding new drugs to mandatory-minimum lists to satisfy demands that they do something about opioids. If Americans really do object to mandatory minimums, they should take a look at the federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). The law bill would reduce the scope of mandatory minimum sentence demands for nonviolent federal drug offenders and would give judges more leeway. The bill has struggled under resistance from drug warriors and law enforcement groups. 2. Cash Bail Reform Should people who get arrested have to front money to be released if they aren't a threat? According to the poll, 85 percent want to replace cash bail with supervised releases, especially in cases where the defendant does not pose a threat to society. Cash bail reform will likely be a major issue this year and beyond. Last year New Jersey all but eliminated cash bail entirely and switched to a system of pre-trial assessments and supervised releases. This month Alaska joined them. There are pushes in cities and states across the country to change the pre-trial system so that nonviolent people aren't detained simply because they cannot afford bail. Yesterday a California judge ruled that it's unconstitutional for the state to set bail so high that defendants cannot pay, unless they're dangerous. On the federal level, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have teamed up to try to create a fund to help states research replacements for cash bail. The Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act would set aside $10 million in grants to assist in implementing new systems of pre-trial assessments. 3. Suspending Driver's Licenses Another set of reforms would curtail states' tendency to suspend driver's licenses as a form of punishment. This can make it harder for people, particularly poor people, to make ends meet legally—an absurd approach to fighting crime. States often suspend driver's licenses for drug-related crimes even when the arrest had nothing to do with driving [...]

Dianne Feinstein Ignores GOP Lawmakers, Blames #ReleaseTheMemo on Russians and Social Media Instead

Wed, 24 Jan 2018 12:35:00 -0500

Trust Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to try to turn a political controversy into an excuse to censor social media. A bunch of Republican lawmakers have been rallying around a classified memo by House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). The memo purports to show FBI abuses connected to the secret surveillance of people involved with Donald Trump's presidential campaign. The push to declassify the document was national news last week, complete with a hashtag campaign, #ReleaseTheMemo. It was discussed by every major news outlet. Several GOP lawmakers tweeted the hashtag. Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) are upset because a bunch of Russian-operated Twitter accounts may have jumped on this and attempted the magnify the hashtag campaign's reach. The two of them have sent a letter to Twitter and Facebook pretty much demanding that they investigate the extent of the Russian involvement in the hashtag campaign. And they want a response in three days: If these reports are accurate, we are witnessing an ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process. This should be disconcerting to all Americans, but especially your companies as, once again, it appears the vast majority of their efforts are concentrated on your platforms. This latest example of Russian interference is in keeping with Moscow's concerted, covert, and continuing campaign to manipulate American public opinion and erode trust in our law enforcement and intelligence institutions. Feinstein is confusing a symptom for a problem, as politicians often do when they have agendas to pursue. It's absurd to hold Russia responsible for the hashtag in any meaningful sense, given that Republican lawmakers were openly, overtly screaming it from the rooftops, on Twitter, and in front of every news camera they could see. A source familiar with how Twitter works told The Hill that the growth of the hashtag appeared to have happened organically. If Russian trolls and bots were involved, they were at most magnifying a conflict that was already underway. They didn't set this fire, and they weren't the chief force spreading it. Feinstein's political machinations here are twofold. She's trying to make the case that the feds must regulate social media because of foreign involvement in American elections; and second, she's using the familiar guilt-by-association logical fallacy to discredit her political opponents. Feinstein's love of censorship is well known. She flat-out wants to suppress online content that she deems dangerous. This lack of respect for Americans' speech rights and privacy is one of the few things she has in common with Trump. As for the guilt-by-association issue, it's remarkable how little people on either side are interested in engaging the surveillance issues that undergird this fight and instead want to make it all about attacking or defending Trump. I've already mocked Republicans acting outraged about the Nunes memo because a bunch of them just voted to expand the feds' power to snoop on American citizens for purposes unrelated to terrorism and espionage. On the very same day this hashtag campaign was launching, Trump signed that bill into law. The discussion of actual surveillance policy got drowned by constant efforts to either discredit Trump (by any silly memes necessary) or to discredit the FBI investigation. What's most obnoxious about Feinstein and Schiff's response here is how it simply does not engage the complaint that the surveillance state might have abused its powers when it snooped on and possibly unmasked the identities of people in Trump's orbit. Personally, based on my experience covering the federal surveillance apparatus,[...]

Shipping Magnates and Friendly Lawmakers Air-Kiss over Loathsome Law that Torments Poor Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans

Tue, 23 Jan 2018 12:20:00 -0500

If you're wondering why it's so hard to get rid of bad laws, a hearing last week at the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation is a useful demonstration. I'll spare you from having to watch a two-hour congressional hearing. It's about the state of the U.S. shipping industry and the Jones Act. The Jones Act is a deliberately protectionist 1920 federal law that requires that cargo ships traveling between ports in the United States (including its territories) be made in America, owned by American companies, and crewed by American citizens. It doesn't take a degree in economics to understand this purposefully protects U.S. shipping companies from foreign competition and therefore ends up driving up prices for shipping in some parts of the country, particularly isolated island communities like Puerto Rico or Hawaii. American consumers and companies that have to ship goods pay the price for protecting an American industry. But this hearing didn't have any representatives from those consumers or from people who have to ship cargo. Instead lawmakers heard from the leaders of the very industries that benefit from the Jones Act. The trade magazine Marine Log reports: "In order for us to maintain the way of life as we know it as a nation that is secure and is able to project power, be it Navy power or commercial power, the Jones Act is intrinsic to that It is the cornerstone of all of them," said Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Marine Transportation, in his opening remarks. In his opening remarks, Ranking Member Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA), stated: "First and foremost, we cannot become complacent in our defense of the Jones Act and our raise public awareness of the need for, and the many benefits that flow, from this long-standing maritime policy that has stood for nearly a century." Hunter represents the San Diego area of California and has received thousands of dollars in campaign donations from U.S. firms connected to shipping and shipbuilding. There's plenty of logrolling going on amid this discussion of shipping. Less happy about the effects of the Jones Act are the citizens of Puerto Rico and Hawaii, who have to pay out of the nose to ship goods to their islands. One study determined that it costs twice as much to ship something to Puerto Rico as it does to ship to nearby Jamaica, thanks to the Jones Act. So if the headline for the Hawai'i Free Press's short piece on the hearing sounds a little exasperated—"It's All Kumbaya at Jones Act U.S. House Hearing"—that's not without reason. As the story notes, All seven of those testifying were pro-Jones Act including two government witnesses and five representatives of the U.S. maritime industry, no critics of the U.S. maritime policy or those who are customers of the industry were called as witnesses. Certainly, no merchant cargo owners—formally known in transportation and law as "shippers"—were invited to this Congressional Jones Act lovefest. It's easy for lawmakers to ignore the American citizens who are hurt by U.S. protectionism when they don't even invite them to speak. Nor were there any trade economists to explain the law's consequences. The Free Press notes that previous "oversight" hearings have been similar in tone: insisting the law is very important while denying voice to those who have been harmed. At one point Duncan absurdly insisted the Jones Act "is what allows us to project power and be the greatest country in the world." Clinging to a federal law that protects an American industry from foreign competition is the exact opposite of projecting power. It's an admission that other countries can manage this task better and more cheaply. And if [...]

Avoiding a Government Shutdown Means Adding $30 Billion (at Least) to the Debt

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 14:50:00 -0500

Keeping the government open will come with a hefty price tag, and lawmakers seem poised to put it all on the nation's credit card. With a possible shutdown of the federal government looming unless lawmakers agree to a new spending plan before midnight on Friday, the House on Thursday passed a continuing resolution (CR) extending current spending through February 19. Tied up with the CR to keep the government open are bills to extend funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for six years and a deal to address the status of so-called "Dreamers," illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, which is itself tied up with Trump's desire to ramp-up security along the U.S.-Mexico border. Because the CR requires 60 votes to pass the Senate, Republicans are unable to pass it without Democratic votes. Those votes are, for now, not forthcoming. What happens in the next 10 hours, before the shutdown happens, is still anyone's guess—about the only thing that is clear is that House-passed CR is dead in the Senate. And for anyone worried about the status of the federal debt, that's good news. Though it was largely lost behind the other issues being discussed in advance of the possible shutdown, the CR passed by the House on Thursday would have added another $30 billion to the national debt. It would have ignored spending caps set by Congress in 2011 and would have disregarded cuts implemented as part of the 2013 sequester. Tax cuts included in the CR would further add to the national debt. As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget points out, the bill would have included a two-year delay of the so-called "Cadillac tax" on high-cost health insurance plans, which is set to go into effect in 2020, a one-year suspension of the health insurer tax, which was suspended last year, went into effect for 2018, and would be suspended again for 2019, and a two-year delay of the medical device tax, which came back into effect in 2018 but no tax has been due yet. "We need our leaders to reach a budget deal that sets achievable discretionary caps and finances any near-term spending increases with permanent spending cuts or new revenue," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the CFRB, in a statement about the House-passed CR. "The ultimate goal should be to reduce ballooning deficits – this bill increases them." It could get worse. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) tweeted Thursday before the House vote that the CR was a prelude to further increases in those spending caps. Worse yet, Congress is passing this CR to buy time to negotiate another INCREASE in the spending caps. When will Republicans start limiting government? — Justin Amash (@justinamash) January 19, 2018 Coming as it does in the immediate aftermath of the passage of a major tax cut that will reduce government revenues by about $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years, the idea that Congress is trying to increase spending seems like the height of fiscal insanity. Every dollar spent today must be collected in taxes someday later. Cutting taxes is great, but it's also easy. Cutting spending, it seems, is near impossible for Congress to even consider—indeed, they are far more interested in finding ways to get around existing limits on spending than they are in reducing spending at all. It appears that the House-passed CR is dead. Whatever comes next could quite possibly be worse.[...]

Meet the Republicans Who Care About Surveillance Abuse Only When Trump's the Target (UPDATE: Trump Signs 702 Bill)

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 13:15:00 -0500

Some lawmakers who just voted to expand the feds' ability to secretly snoop on Americans are suddenly very concerned about how such surveillance might have been misused. They're not concerned about the privacy of average Americans like you or me. They'e concerned that some FBI officials and members of the Obama administration may have abused Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authorities to spy on and leak communications from Donald Trump's campaign staff. Members of the House have seen a four-page classified memo originating from the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee. It reportedly claims significant misconduct and abuse of the FISA approval process to go after Trump's campaign. I can't be much more specific about what the memo says because I can't see it. It's classified. The lawmakers who have seen it cannot say what's in it. (Again, it's classified.) But a bunch of Republican lawmakers have been coming forward to insist that it's very bad and that we should all be very concerned. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) called the contents "worse than Watergate." They want the memo's contents declassified and released. Conservatives are pushing a hashtag campaign, #ReleaseTheMemo, calling for the public to see the documents and the allegations within. Honestly, they should release the memo. It may just be political theater intended to discredit the investigation into Trump's staff, but that's an argument in favor of releasing the memo, not withholding it: If its contents are hogwash, then we can all see that it's hogwash, say so, and move on. As it stands, we're stuck with grandstanding politicians with obvious agendas butting heads against other grandstanding politicians with other obvious agendas, and the public doesn't even have the benefit of knowing what the memo actually says. We're just being told to feel a certain way based on partisan loyalties. But let's make something clear here: These guys only care about how the FISA surveillance abuses affect them. Rep. King voted just last week to let the feds secretly collect the communications of Americans, without warrants, and use what they find in domestic criminal investigations—under a law originally intended to spy on foreign terrorists and agents of espionage. Check out this tweet campaign from Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.): The American public deserves the truth. We should not hide the truth from them. They've waited too long. Do not pull the wool over their eyes. Show them the facts. They deserve nothing less. #ReleaseTheMemo #ReleaseTheFile #FISAMemo — Lee Zeldin (@RepLeeZeldin) January 19, 2018 Zeldin seems terribly concerned about the abuse of federal surveillance, but just like King he voted last week to expand the government's authority to surveil its citizens. Not every Republican is a hypocrite here. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) also tweeted out his concerns about the memo's contents and wants it publicly released. Unlike Zeldin, he voted against renewing and expanding FISA surveillance authorities. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who has said he finds the memo's contents "extremely disturbing," has been attempting to reform the FISA Amendments to stop warrantless searches of Americans' communications. But pols like Zeldin and King are essentially the inverse of the Democratic lawmakers who call Trump a wannabe dictator but then vote just like Zeldin and King to expand federal surveillance powers. Edward Snowden and some other folks are hoping this burst of outrage will prompt President Trump to veto this renewal of federal snooping powers. After all, we did have that awkward tweet last week where Trump worried about FISA abuse and contradicted the White Ho[...]