Posted on October 21, 2013 in Countdown

Candidate de Blasio is Already Leading, and We Don’t Mean in the Polls

You don’t need us to tell you we like what we see from Bill de Blasio, the progressive Democrat who seems a shoo-in for the next mayor of New York City and has been harshly critical of the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program. But this week he gave us the best reason yet to support his election in two weeks: he promised to end NYPD’s pervasive, widespread surveillance of Arab Americans and American Muslim New Yorkers. “The efforts of surveillance have to be based on specifically specific information,” he said at a rally of Muslim supporters in Brooklyn, vowing an end to the NYPD’s pernicious practices of spying on neighborhoods only based on religion, and labeling entire mosques as “terrorism enterprises.” Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman’s new book Enemies Within reveals the chilling extent of these programs – as well as the fact that they don’t even work! We are happy to hear candidate de Blasio weigh in on NYPD spying and look forward to a new era in New York. Now, if only we can get Attorney General Eric Holder to do something.

Everything Old is New Again

Plenty of stories came out of the 2012 elections, but what held media and popular attention were efforts to prevent voting, as state after state implemented voter roll purges, voter ID laws, and rollbacks on early voting. In Virginia, there’s a pre-election blast from the past, with the state Board of Elections confirming that it purged just under 38,000 records from the voter rolls. Needless to say, the action is raising hackles — but not just because of déjà vu, or because of the conspicuous 1-month-before-election-day timing. At issue, yet again, is the accuracy of the purge. Election officials in several counties have confirmed that up to 13% of the voters they were told to cull were legally and accurately registered in their counties. The Board of Elections’ legal advisor says that’s not an issue — that the second round of checks that identified the discrepancies shows that “The system worked.” But, in fact, at least one county official, who called the list “clearly inaccurate and unreliable,” says that his effort to provide checks and balances wasn’t treated as part of the process. Instead, the Board of Elections “strong-armed and threatened” county officials into immediately purging the voter rolls. A federal judge has upheld the purge, but an appeal is expected in the coming days. The appeal is likely to get plenty of media coverage, as the attorney representing the Board of Elections is none other than Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate in this year’s election. Add a hanging chad, and we’re back in Florida 2000.

Speaker Pelosi Redux, Coming Soon?

Washington is settling back in after the insanity of the government shutdown and threatened default finally subsided last week. The Republican Party is now realizing what a nightmare the last month has been for their popularity and brand, and may have achieved what many thought was impossible: the GOP majority in the House of Representatives might be in play in the 2014 elections. Venerable pollster and political handicapper Charlie Cook says a Democratic takeover is still a long shot – the House is so starkly gerrymandered that about 55% of the country would have to vote Democratic to give them a majority – but at the same time Cook argues, “it’s no longer fair to say that there is virtually zero or at most a minimal chance that Republicans will lose their majority.” But whether the Democrats pull that off or not, there’s no doubt that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.) will still be in charge. The 73-year-old vowed in a recent article that she has no intention of retiring anytime soon, and she, as much as Senate leaders Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) deserve credit for whipping up enough votes in Congress to end the shutdown and avert a potentially catastrophic default. Her influence has reached a level not seen since she surrendered the Speaker’s gavel in 2011 – and whether she regains that old post again or not, there’s no doubt she’ll be around for quite a while longer.

Barrage of Drone Criticism

The troubling U.S. policy of targeted killing of suspected terrorists using drones came under harsh scrutiny this week from human rights groups. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released reports today on the effects of U.S. drone use in Pakistan and Yemen, respectively. Both reports contain harrowing descriptions of civilian deaths, and a number of similar recommendations which seek to increase tighter controls and accountability for the use of targeted killing. Particularly, both reports blasted the U.S. for a total lack of transparency into its legal reasoning, and how it determines appropriate targets: these issues make it impossible to determine whether a particular drone attack was justified, because we can’t know what information the government had when the attack was ordered. A similar demand for transparency came from a UN expert Friday. We agree. Collateral damage in war is inevitable, but we can’t evaluate whether this is an effective way of fighting a war, as President Obama claims, with so little information. An administration that claimed as recently as this year to be the most transparent in history needs to do better.

The TSA is Looking at Even More

You already know the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has taken its jurisdiction beyond “transportation security” with its VIPR squads, which now are appearing at large public gatherings totally unconnected with transportation. But now its probing reach is expanding even further into travelers’ private lives: TSA is doing extensive “prescreening” of airline passengers before flights. According to a New York Times report today, TSA investigates passengers who have booked flights “before they arrive at the airport by searching a wide array of government and private databases that can include records like car registrations and employment information.” Previously, the government just checked domestic passengers’ names and birth dates against terrorist watch lists, but apparently no piece of mundane information is too boring for TSA. Because of TSA’s secrecy, no one knows exactly what information they use or what they’re looking for, but the available data includes a passenger’s “tax identification number, past travel itineraries, property records, physical characteristics, and law enforcement or intelligence information.” There’s no evidence indicating that this invasion of privacy is helpful to security, or makes us safer – but then again, TSA has a long history of invasive, legally dubious practices that don’t actually work.

Tell the Government to Stop Watching Us

This Saturday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and over 100 other groups will stand together on Capitol Hill to oppose mass surveillance of Americans. The “Stop Watching Us” rally will be held twelve years to the day after Congress passed the Orwellian-titled “Patriot Act,” and is expected to be the largest gathering yet against the disturbing surveillance practices by the National Security Agency (NSA) revealed over the summer by whistleblower Edward Snowden. On Friday, coalition members will lobby Senators and Representatives to consider much-needed changes to surveillance laws. We like the USA FREEDOM Act – coauthored by one of the authors of the Patriot Act – which might actually do what its catchy acronym says it will if it passes. Either way, we’re glad to see some attention finally being paid to these important issues.