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Black Caucus joins Tea Party in opposition over NSA

29th July 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Demonstrating how opposition to the NSA’s spying programs cuts across both parties, last Wednesday, the Republican House leadership joined President Obama and Nancy Pelosi to narrowly defeat an amendment that would have defunded the agency’s mass collection of Americans’ phone records. And, the normally, lock-in-step Louisiana GOP delegation split in half over the issue.

Meanwhile, the group Pro­Publica — famed in the Crescent City for revealing the Henry Glover/NOPD coverup — discovered that the NSA claims to not even have the ability to search its own emails, raising questions of how effectively it can screen those of the American public.

The phone records amendment, sponsored by Michigan Repub­lican Rep. Justin Amash, would have required individualized suspicion before any American’s telephone records can be collected. It would have defunded a section of a must-pass defense spending bill that underwrites the NSA, and the amendment drew the first presidential veto threat based solely on a House amendment since 2005, according to the measure’s sponsors.

It also split the Louisiana delegation almost in half. Supporting the measure—and joining most of the Congressional Black Caucus in opposing the instructions of both President Obama and Speaker Boehner—were Reps. Steve Sca­lise, R-Jefferson; Cedric Rich­mond, D-New Orleans, Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, and John Flem­ing, R-Minden. Backing the alliance of White House and the GOP leadership, and casting a ballot against the amendment, were Reps. Rodney Alexander,
R-Quitman and Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette.

Fleming, a North Louisiana Congressman and Physician, who tends to be on the moderate wing of the GOP, joined the Tea Party-Liberal Democrat alliance in backing the defunding the NSA telephone snooping program, with the justification, “Is there any reason, we should trust the N.S.A more than the IRS? I don’t think so.”

In introducing the amendment, Rep. Amash posed a question to his peers, “Do we approve the suspicion-less collection of every American’s phone records?”

That one of the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, co-sponsored Amash’s amendment, in opposition to an African-American President of his own party, appeared to reply with a resounding “No!” Other sponsors of the amendment, which was cleared for debate Monday on July 22, 2013 by the House Committee on Rules, were Rep. Jared Polis, Colorado Democrat, and Rep. Thomas Massie, Kentucky Republican.

Edward Snowden provided to the news media last month top secret NSA documents showing that the agency is collecting data about every telephone call made in the U.S. through its use of the so-called business records provision, Section 215, of the Patriot Act — that huge suite of counterterrorism laws quickly passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

What makes the Wednesday, July 24th, debate particularly odd, is that while the NSA collects the data from the public, it claims to not even be able to interpret its own emails.

The revelation came when the NSA turned down a ProPublica Freedom of Information Act request, maintaining that agency lacks the ability to search all the email accounts within its internal network. The other words, the leading electronic intelligence group in the Federal Government cannot answer a question such as “What conversations took place between the NSA and National Geographic in the lead-up to a positive story about the Agency?” It can only search one user’s mail at a time, not all 30,000 NSA employees.

“There’s no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately,” NSA Freedom of In­formation Act officer Cindy Blacker told ProPublica’s Justin Elliott.

The system is “a little antiquated and archaic,” she added. Blacker said this of an agency that boasts of being a “supercomputing powerhouse” with computers so powerful their speed is measured in thousands of trillions of operations per second. The agency turns its giant machine brains to the task of sifting through inconceivably huge troves of data its surveillance programs capture.

But ask the NSA, as part of a freedom of information request, to do a seemingly simple search of its own employees’ email? The agency says it doesn’t have the technology.

Elliott had filed a request two weeks ago for emails between NSA employees and employees of the National Geographic Channel over a specific time period. The TV station had aired a friendly documentary on the NSA, and ProPublica sought to better understand the agency’s public-relations efforts.

A few days after filing the request, Blacker called, asking Elliott to narrow his request since the FOIA office can search emails only “person by person,” rather than in bulk. The NSA has more than 30,000 employees. After that the NSA Press Office chose not to reply to any further inquiries, despite the fact that it is actually common for large corporations to do bulk searches of their employees email as part of internal investigation or legal discovery.

“It’s just baffling,” Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told ProPublica. “This is an agency that’s charged with monitoring millions of communications globally and they can’t even track their own internal communications in response to a FOIA request.”

Federal agencies’ public records offices are often underfunded, according to Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at University of Maryland and a longtime observer of FOIA issues. Yet, she added, “If anybody is going to have the money to engage in evaluation of digital information, it’s the NSA for heaven’s sake.”

This article originally published in the July 29, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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