It’s quite a change to hear Dianne Feinstein, the powerful chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, express outrage over warrantless and potentially illegal government spying.
In an impassioned Senate floor speech yesterday, the California Democrat accused the CIA of criminal activity for allegedly searching computers used by Senate staffers. The CIA set up the computers at a secure location in northern Virginia so Senate Intelligence Committee staff could access classified documents pertaining to the CIA’s detainee program. When some of them found an incriminating document the CIA hadn’t intended to release, the CIA started poking around.
“The CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance,” Feinstein said during her speech. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), head of the Judiciary Committee, immediately followed up with, “I cannot think of any speech by any member by either party as important as the one the senator from California just gave.”
He called it “likely criminal conduct” on the intelligence agency’s part. And, like Feinstein, he suggested it was a breach of the separation of powers doctrine.
The first of Obama’s three picks, Patricia Millett, was narrowly approved Thursday by the Judiciary Committee on a party line vote of 10-8. Every Republican voted against her, although they didn’t criticize her or take issue with her qualifications. They merely argued that the court is under-worked and that nobody ought to fill those seats.
“I have nothing against her but we should not be adding to that bench,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a senior Republican on the committee, told TPM on Thursday afternoon.
Republicans appear to be united behind Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) legislation to reduce the number of active judges on the D.C. Circuit court from 11 to eight. He proposes eliminating one seat, transferring one to the Second Circuit and transferring another to the 11th Circuit. (During the Bush administration, Grassley led a successful effort to reduce the size of the D.C. Circuit court from 12 to 11.)
“It’s way overstaffed,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), another Judiciary Committee member, told TPM on Thursday. “It does not need these judges, and we don’t have the money.”
Democrats flatly dismiss the Grassley effort as a ploy to maintain the strong conservative tilt of the court, which often has the final word over the constitutionality of executive power decisions and has invalidated various executive actions by President Obama, on issues like labor and environmental regulations and recess appointments. They argue that despite the court’s relatively low caseload, it takes extraordinarily complex cases.
“The D.C. Circuit decides some of the most important cases in our nation, with significant impact on the lives of all Americans,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). “This court must be allowed to operate at full strength, and to that end, I applaud the Judiciary Committee’s approval of Patricia Millett’s nomination today.”
This bill, championed by Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks, sought to ban abortions after 20 weeks nationwide, with no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. “I’ll be very frank: I discouraged our leadership from bringing this to a vote on the floor,” Dent said.
My e-mail box was flooded with headlines that began “This again?” and “This … is the GOP’s idea of outreach to women? Really?” and “He said what?” The latter referred to a remark by Franks, chairman of the committee, that “incidents of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low,” as a justification for the bill ignoring rape and incest victims.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee were apparently willing to allow the time when an abortion is legal to be reduced by one month. They sought to add exceptions for rape, incest and the woman’s health — all of which were rejected by Republicans on the panel.
But it appears the House Republican leaders, recognizing a train wreck, added the language to the bill anyway to avoid an embarrassing defeat. The bill will also include an exception for a medical emergency in which the woman might die. This new altered version goes before the Rules Committee on Monday. There are, by the way, 22 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee. All men. Not a single woman.
Kudos to our attorney General for stepping up for civil protections. Warrants are what keeps us safe from excessive police and government agency powers. They are the critical check on power to assure some balance of power between us and each administration. Each Attorney General. Each FBI Director. This is an important step on a road to understanding that as the years pass we must return to the civil protections we enjoyed before that attack. And we should do that in a way that embraces both protections and technology.
The more he steps up like this the more I can feel less skeptical of his policies.
Attorney General Eric Holder became the White House’s highest ranking official to support sweeping privacy protections requiring the government, for the first time, to get a probable-cause warrant to obtain e-mail and other content stored in the cloud.
“It is something that I think the Department will support,” Holder testified before the House Judiciary Committee, when questioned about the Justice Department’s position.
Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a package that nullifies a provision of federal law allowing the authorities to acquire a suspect’s e-mail or other stored content from an internet service provider without showing probable cause that a crime was committed if the content is 180 days or older.
Under the current law, the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the government can obtain e-mail without a warrant as long as the data has been stored on a third-party server — the cloud — for 180 days or more. The government only needs to show, often via an administrative subpoena, that it has “reasonable grounds to believe” the information would be useful to an investigation.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont has killed a controversial portion of a bill he proposed that would have allowed more than 20 government agencies to access Americans’ emails without a warrant, CNET reports.
Leahy originally proposed the bill to increase email and Internet privacy. But he received pushback from law enforcement interests, so he amended it to allow warrantless access to email by a bevy of government agencies, from the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Mine Enforcement Safety and Health Review Commission. That revised version sparked outrage among civil liberties proponents and a coalition of technology companies. On Tuesday Leahy abandoned the offending amendments altogether.
Leahy’s office said Tuesday on Twitter the proposed changes were only “ideas,” and would not withstand the mark-up phase of the bill process in the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.
The Senate today confirmed Jesse Furman to sit on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, over five months after his nomination was approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee. The vote came after the GOP quietly ended its five-month filibuster of Furman’s nomination, which was all but unheard of for an unopposed district court nominee.
President Obama’s judicial nominees have waited an average of 91 days for an up-or-down vote from the Senate after being approved by the Judiciary Committee. For President Bush’s nominees at this point in his presidency, the average wait was 23 days. The Senate GOP was roundly criticized last week for obstructing the nomination of Circuit Court nominee Adalberto Jordan, who was confirmed in a 94-5 vote after four months of delay.
As the Senate prepares to leave town for the holidays, 21 judicial nominees are still waiting for confirmation votes from the full Senate. Nineteen of these are consensus nominees who were approved by the Judiciary Committee with overwhelming bipartisan support. Eleven have been pending for more than two months. Nine have been nominated to fill seats designated as judicial emergencies. Fourteen are women or people of color.
Marge Baker of People For the American Way issued the following statement:
“The Senate has absolutely no excuse to leave town without confirming these 21 highly qualified nominees. Courts across the country are stretching their resources to provide access to justice for all Americans - by confirming these nominees, the Senate would help ease that crisis. In fact, the courts to which these men and women have been nominated serve over 160 million Americans.
Elaine Marshall: Following His Mentor Jesse Helms, Burr Continuing Secret Holds On Minority Judges
Speaking with ThinkProgress at the Netroots Nation convention yesterday, U.S. Senate candidate Elaine Marshall (D-NC) harshly rebuked Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) for his use of secret holds on Judges James Wynn and Albert Diaz, who have both been nominated for the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Wynn, Marshall explained, was denied even a committee hearing when nominated for the same position in 1999 by Bill Clinton, due to Republican obstruction and a secret hold from then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC).
When President Obama renominated Wynn, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Burr supported the decision. Although Wynn cleared the Judiciary Committee, a vote on his confirmation has not been scheduled because, despite his public support for Wynn, Burr placed a hold on Wynn’s nomination. When asked for comment by the press, Burr duplicitously said he that he “applauds Sen. Hagan for her ongoing efforts to encourage Majority Leader Reid to schedule their nominations for votes on the Senate floor.”
Marshall noted that Burr’s two-faced approach to Judge Wynn appeared to echo the tactics of Helms, who made a career of race-baiting, fighting Civil Rights laws, and intentionally blocking African American judges like Wynn
I have to confess that I’m not up on the Jesse Helms analogy (i.e., whether and to what extent Helms gave public support to nominations and then used secret holds to block them), but something is rotten when a Senator is publicly supporting a nomination —and then placing secret holds on it. And it stinks even more when that someone is from NC and the judges in question are minorities. And that certainly is what Burr is doing. Something to keep an eye on and see how it shakes out.