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Archive for the ‘Civil Liberties’ Category

The War at Home

Images of warfare abound these days, from Syria, Gaza, northern Iraq…and Ferguson, MO. As Dylan Scott (TPM) notes, the images out of Ferguson have been “harrowing.” “American law enforcement decked out in military fatigues, patrolling the streets in armored vehicles that look like they were plucked out of Afghanistan or Iraq.” 

I have blogged in the past about the distribution of war surplus to domestic police forces via the Department of Defense’s 1033 program (here and here).  Unsurprisingly, Ferguson and St. Louis County have both benefited from the 1033 program. Although precise information is difficult to come by—the Pentagon only releases information on tactical equipment for counties—USA Today has a partial list for St. Louis County, which includes twelve 5.56 mm rifles, six .45 caliber pistols, night vision equipment, vehicles, a trailer, and a generator.

National Journal has some images of the police response in Ferguson, in a piece aptly titled: “What a Militarized Police Force Does to a City.” Terrence McCoy (Washington Post) has an article on the use of tear gas in Ferguson. As McCoy explains:

Despite its ubiquity across the globe and in United States, tear gas is a chemical agent banned in warfare per the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which set forth agreements signed by nearly every nation in the world — including the United States. The catch, however, is that while it’s illegal in war, it’s legal in domestic riot control.

Sven-Eric Jordt, Yale School of Medicine, is quoted as saying: “Tear gas under the Geneva Convention is characterized as a chemical warfare agent, and so it is precluded for use in warfare, but it is used very frequently against civilians. That’s very illogical.”

It is also illogical to provide police forces with military grade equipment based on the urgency of the war on drugs or the war on terror. As recent stories reveal (recounted in a fine piece by Radley Balko, WSJ), SWAT teams and the technology they have been provided through 1033 and Homeland Security grants have been used judiciously to break up illegal poker games at VFW halls, to stop underage drinking in a New Haven bar, and to apprehend Tibetan monks whose visas had expired in Iowa.

Balko concludes: “What would it take to dial back such excessive police measures? The obvious place to start would be ending the federal grants that encourage police forces to acquire gear that is more appropriate for the battlefield. Beyond that, it is crucial to change the culture of militarization in American law enforcement.”

Until that occurs, one fears, the war at home will continue.

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Marc blogged the other day about the New York Times editorial board’s endorsement of repealing federal marijuana prohibition, just months after having rejected that step. Now, this isn’t quite the same as endorsing marijuana legalization – just returning it to the states – but it is a significant step nonetheless. Still, they are well behind the rest of the country. An absolute majority of Americans favor legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana more or less like alcohol. Liberal Democrats are overwhelmingly in favor.

Fivethirtyeight recently showed how out-of-step the New York Times is by comparing their position to that of representative Americans with a similar demographic profile. Money quote:

[P]eople with this demographic profile are somewhere around 25 or 30 percentage points more supportive of marijuana legalization than the average American. That implies that back in 2000, when only about 30 percent of Americans supported legalization, perhaps 55 or 60 percent of these people did. The margin of error on this estimate is fairly high — about 10 percent — but not enough to call into question that most people like those on the Times’ editorial board have privately supported legalization for a long time. The question is why it took them so long to take such a stance publicly.

The political class everywhere, regardless of left-right ideology, has been vastly more opposed to marijuana legalization than equivalent Americans. Here in New Hampshire, Democratic governor Maggie Hassan has not only opposed and promised to veto recreational marijuana legalization, she has also opposed and threatened to veto marijuana decriminalization and even allowing terminally ill patients to grow their own medical marijuana plants. Her spineless copartisans in the state senate have gone meekly along. And is anyone really surprised that government bootlicker David Brooks opposes legalization? It’s no accident that the only two states to legalize recreational marijuana so far have been states with the popular ballot initiative. It’s also no accident that medical marijuana started in states with the popular ballot initiative. The people have had to go around the controllers and neurotics in office.

Now the Brookings Institution has come out with a study of marijuana legalization in Colorado. Their quick synopsis? (more…)

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This has not been a good Supreme Court term for the Obama administration. Damon Root (Reason) has a quick and delightful overview of some of the key decisions. The most recent defeat—the Hobby Lobby decision—can be viewed as a loss for the administration, but it may provide some political benefits with respect to fundraising and continuing the “war on women” meme, as Byron Tau (Politico) explains:

Shortly after the court’s 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which said for-profit employers with religious objections can opt out of providing contraception coverage under Obamacare, the liberal fundraising emails went flying. Democratic candidates and liberal groups were seeking to collect scores of new email addresses and bank last-minute cash contributions in advance of the monthly FEC deadline at midnight Monday.

As Megan McArdle notes in the conclusion to her interesting discussion of the decision (Bloombergview):

Presumably, the administration hates this ruling–but at the same time, it has to love the passion that it has engendered. This is going to be fundraising gold for Democrats for the next two years. In a politics that cares more about symbolism than substance, that too was predictable. And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this was the prediction that mattered more. Politics may not be rational, but it still has its own remorseless logic.

Jeremy Peters and Michael Shear (New York Times) argue that this was also a decision that the conservative movement can run with: “The ruling comes as social conservatives have suffered setbacks on another high-profile social issue, same-sex marriage, and leaders predicted Monday’s decision would infuse Republicans with energy as they fight to take control of the Senate this year and reclaim the White House in 2016.” Their analysis suggests that the decision could contribute to a revivification of the culture wars that defined much of the politics of the past few decades.

I hope that Peters and Shear are wrong. Any efforts of Republicans and Democrats to reignite the tiresome culture wars will threaten to draw attention away from the far more pressing issues of late, e.g., the ongoing growth of executive power, long-term fiscal instability, the failure of immigration policy, targeted killings abroad, and the expansive violation of civil liberties in the name of national security. These are the kinds of issues that sizable parts of both parties and the public should agree are of sufficient importance to avoid any of the short-term tactical appeals offered by the culture wars.

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It remains unclear where we are heading in Iraq and whether the IRS investigation will gain much traction. But this was a pretty good week for the Supreme Court.

Wednesday, SCOTUS decided unanimously that police need warrants to search cellphones. As the New York Times reported:

“While the decision will offer protection to the 12 million people arrested every year, many for minor crimes, its impact will most likely be much broader. The ruling almost certainly also applies to searches of tablet and laptop computers, and its reasoning may apply to searches of homes and businesses and of information held by third parties like phone companies.”

Andy Greenberg has a useful piece on the decision at Wired.

Thursday, SCOTUS decided unanimously that three of President Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board were unconstitutional. The New York Times editorial board was not happy (insert look of surprise here). Neither was Justice Scalia, who wrote:

“A self-aggrandizing practice adopted by one branch well after the founding, often challenged, and never before blessed by this Court—in other words, the sort of practice on which the majority relies in this case—does not relieve us of our duty to interpret the Constitution in light of its text, structure, and original understanding,”

While Scalia would have liked more, I still rank this a win.

The fact that both of these decisions were 9-0 and both moved the ball in the correct direction should give us some pleasure as we enter the weekend.

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A few weeks ago I posted on the distribution of war surplus to state and local law enforcement agencies under the DOD’s Excess Property Program. This is all part of a larger trend detailed in the ACLU’s new report, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. From the executive summary:

This investigation gave us data to corroborate a trend we have been noticing nationwide: American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.Using these federal funds, state and local law enforcement agencies have amassed military arsenals purportedly to wage the failed War on Drugs, the battlegrounds of which have disproportionately been in communities of color. But these arsenals are by no means free of cost for communities. Instead, the use of hyper- aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.

The Guardian has a useful overview of the report, and notes:

The findings set up a striking and troubling paradox. The Obama administration is completing its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the US is on the verge of being free from war for the first time in more than a decade; yet at the same time the hardware and tactics of the war zone are quietly proliferating at home.

This does not seem to be much of a paradox, given the focus on federal, state and local policy since 9/11, the heavy investment in “homeland security,” and the federal government’s practice of providing the surplus tools of war to “first responders,” often times for free. In some ways, this was all too predictable.

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Bill Clinton is often quite a delight as ex-president, free to opine on a variety of subjects without being confined by anyone’s talking points. Case in point: his comments on Edward Snowden delivered before the Naval Academy earlier this week. As reported by Dustin Volz (National Journal):

“Mr. Snowden has been sort of an imperfect messenger, from my point of view, for what we need to be talking about here,” Bill Clinton said during a 50-minute speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. “The Snowden case has raised all of these questions about whether we can use technology to protect the national security without destroying the liberty, which includes the right to privacy, of basically innocent bystanders.”

And

“We cannot change the character of our country or compromise the future of our people by creating a national security state, which takes away the liberty and privacy we propose to advance,” Bill said Wednesday, adding, “Don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

I am assuming many would disagree with his statements, including the former Secretary of State and the current President. But this appears not to trouble him in the least. Give him a podium and he will speak (and speak). That is the unbearable lightness of being Bill Clinton.

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Reporters without Borders has issued its annual World Press Freedom Index (map here, discussion here). The US has tumbled to 46, just above Haiti. To place things in context, the US was 17 in 2002 when the first index was published.

printing-press-tyrants-foe

As Reporters without Borders explains:

Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example, far from it. Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result.

This has been the case in the United States (46th), which fell 13 places, one of the most significant declines, amid increased efforts to track down whistleblowers and the sources of leaks. The trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning and the pursuit of NSA analyst Edward Snowden were warnings to all those thinking of assisting in the disclosure of sensitive information that would clearly be in the public interest.

(more…)

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