Category Archives: Uncategorized

DEA Agents Using “Administrative Subpoenas” To Get NSA-Level Data From AT&T

It recently came out that DEA agents have been using NSA data, collected via warrantless wiretaps under the auspices of national security, to investigate drug crimes. Now it’s come to light that the DEA has been for years dipping into an AT&T-run database far more extensive and intrusive than than any NSA program we know of, including PRISM and Boundless Informant.

The story fits into the ongoing news narrative about government surveillance overreach. In fact it goes further. While the NSA has come under fire for keeping the phone number, time and duration of all calls in the United States for up to five years, the DEA program Hemisphere collects all that, plus the locations of callers and has data going back 26 years.

Hemisphere gives the DEA unfettered, unprecedented access to Americans’ call records and has been purposefully kept top-secret. The process seems to be that DEA decides to target someone and they supply their target’s phone number to their AT&T employee and he or she looks back at everyone that person has called, where they were when they called and how long the call lasted, going back 26 years.

However, the real scandal is the way in which this data is collected: without warrants, through what the agency is calling “administrative subpoenas.” In other words, these warrants aren’t approved by a grand jury or a judge, but by the federal agency requesting them. The DEA is writing its own warrants to spy on Americans to gather evidence to make drug arrests.

Wired introduced the administrative subpoena last year, describing it thusly:

With a federal official’s signature… virtually all businesses are required to hand over sensitive data on individuals or corporations, as long as a government agent declares the information is relevant to an investigation. Via a wide range of laws, Congress has authorized the government to bypass the Fourth Amendment — the constitutional guard against unreasonable searches and seizures that requires a probable-cause warrant signed by a judge.

In the same article Lawrence Payne, a DEA spokesman, describes an administrative subpoena as having “Obviously, a much, much lower threshold than a search warrant.”

Why this information would be less protected than what is in someone’s home is a question which has not been answered by any of the dozens of federal agencies who now use administrative subpoenas.

As Catherine Crump pointed out for Salon:

Call-detail records are sensitive. Even analysis of a single call can reveal that someone has called a domestic violence or suicide hotline. More call data can be very telling about people’s social networks, as someone called frequently is more likely to be a close friend than someone called rarely. This is not the sort of information the government should access lightly, and certainly not without the supervision of a judge.

A search warrant cannot be issued without probable cause, or the search is considered unreasonable search and seizure. There seems to be no rational basis for excluding this kind of data from that kind of protection. Federal agencies have been asked why they can’t get traditional subpoenas or how often they’re issuing these subpoenas, to no avail.

Excluding data searches from Fourth Amendment scrutiny via administrative subpoenas also increases the chances of a wrongful conviction. Part of the utility of a normal subpoena is that the target then can inform the victim of the search. Administrative subpoenas gag companies like AT&T from telling victims about their surveillance, meaning they cannot fight back, challenge or investigate the evidence against them.

Brian Fallon, a Justice Department spokesman, attempted to justify the program, saying that it “simply streamlines the process of serving the subpoena to the phone company so law enforcement can quickly keep up with drug dealers when they switch phone numbers to try to avoid detection.”

The entire point of a subpoena is to provide a check against law enforcement agencies who would otherwise perform “unreasonable” searches of innocent citizens. Checks such as warrants and subpoenas are set up to be respected, not “streamlined” when they prove inconvenient for federal agents looking to bust drug offenders.

Military Intervention in Syria Serves Obama, Not the People

There are two questions to ask when assessing whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria: Is there a legitimate national security interest at risk here? And if so, is U.S. intervention in Syria the best approach to protect our interests?

The answer to the first question is a “maybe.” International conventions such as the Geneva Protocol from 1925 (signed by Syria 1968) prohibit the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (especially by a government against its own population) is reprehensible and threatens not only regional stability, but the well-being of people around the globe.

However, sweeping statements by our own politicians such as drawing “red lines” for foreign policy doctrine might threaten national security even more than the current turmoil in the Middle East. Rather than empower the U.S. to respond to difficult situations, such statements narrow tactical and military options, and have caused credibility problems in the past such as when Reagan stated the U.S. would not withdraw from Lebanon.

President Obama’s “red line” claim has put him in a difficult position: If Congress does not follow his recommendation and deliver upon his previous threats, Obama’s credibility is damaged. As tough of a loss as that may be for the President, it would be a victory for the U.S. One of the great differences between the U.S. and those countries threatening our security is that no single person can decide the fate of the entire nation. Future U.S. Presidents should come to finally understand that ex-ante military doctrines are not theirs to set, and they should consult Congress before declaring how the country will react to particular actions.


The move of President Obama to involve Congress in deciding whether to intervene in Syria or not was the right thing to do. Presenting this move as a surprise and not involving Congress from the very beginning is the actual scandal and exemplary of the lack of respect for our tripartite system of checks and balances cultivated by this administration.

As for the question of whether U.S. intervention is the best approach to stabilize the situation in the Middle East, the answer is a very likely “no.” Intervening will lead to a litany of unintended consequences, and likely fail to accomplish its stated purpose of sending a statement to Assad and other regimes in the region and around the world that Weapons of Mass Destruction will not be tolerated. At this point, intervention would serve the political interests of the President more than the security interests of the U.S.

It is not about isolationism but about being aware of the unintended consequences of interventionism. Many problems in the Middle East can be at least be partially seen as unintended consequences of former interventions, military aid, or intelligence campaigns. An entire decade of war has not stabilized the region at all but rather brought more instability, political uncertainty, and terror to the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Claims by some that less military intervention abroad means being disconnected to other cultures or indifferent to atrocities overseas are just not correct. The notion of not creating bigger fires in the Middle East has nothing to do with isolationism practiced in the early 20th, century but with a 21st century understanding of the interconnectedness of the world that suggests greater military intervention and greater violence might not lead to peace and stability.

Hawkish Republicans and bellicose Democrats (following the administration) are trying to continue the neoconservative heritage of the past ten years and thus lead us to a second decade of war.

The pro-interventionist alliance of Democrats and Republicans is another illustration how the mainstream parts of both parties try to push for more policing around the world and neglect the people’s opinion on these issues. It is now up to the American public, dovish Democrats, and non-interventionist Republicans to prevent another war. Real liberal Democrats are hopefully starting to understand that the Obama administration practices a style of foreign policy which is diametrically opposed to their fundamental ideas.

It’s about time to finally overcome the neoconservative direction of U.S. foreign policy. Congress and the President have to understand that stability in the Middle East can’t be brought by additional U.S.-led intervention.

Private School Parents Aren’t Bad People, Public Schools Are Too Hard To Improve

I’m not actually going to take issue with the basic premise of If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person. Allison Benedikt argues persuasively that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. And Benedikt is not looking to outlaw private schools. She’s just trying to guilt parents into quitting them.

Benedikt wants every school full of parents with the time and energy needed to improve it. But that’s a pipe dream. What isn’t is a public education system open enough to accountability and change that even working parents can get a good education for their kids from their local public school.

With few exceptions, public schools are better in the wealthier suburbs and rural areas. There, parents with the will and means to get a good education for their kids live close together and by turns force and help local schools to do their jobs. Rich, educated parents get much better results from public schools because doing so requires a ton of work. Bake sales and PTA meetings don’t run themselves. And school boards and administrators don’t do a good job of keeping themselves accountable.

In less wealthy inner cities and rural areas, schools operate poorly, with little assistance or oversight from parents who are struggling just to get by.

Much as we might want to think of them as exceptions, public schools are service providers, and parents are customers. Demanding customers get better service.

But part of the reason being a demanding customer is so demanding itself is that public education is so mired in bureaucracy, opacity and other impediments to competition and reform. It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. There is absolutely no way to know how public schools spend their budgets. Public education is one of the most top-heavy institutions in the United States.

Innovation in any industry, including education, requires two things. First, there must be flexibility to innovate. Things don’t improve which can’t change. Second, there must be impetus to innovate. Doing things differently is risky. No one will take risks if they don’t fear losing what they’ve gained to competitors who will. What excludes public education from this fact of life?

And how are schools supposed to innovate when states and unions set standards for school days, school years, curricula, teacher pay and more?

What we’ve seen over decades of skyrocketing spending on public education and flatlined educational outcomes is that no amount of money can replace a concerned, active, informed parent. Where parents are involved, schools produce a great education. Where they aren’t, schools fail. This is independent of spending. That’s why Benedikt understandably wants kids who do not have involved parents to benefit alongside the kids who do. It’s a laudable goal and a beautiful vision.

But any solution that requires people to deny their kids the best education possible out of guilt over the kids for whom that’s out of reach is doomed to fail. What could work are a few simple reforms to make getting schools to do their jobs require less time, money and energy in the first place.

Moves like ending teacher tenure, shining light on school budgets, allowing schools to innovate and legalizing charter schools and vouchers to open up competition will give concerned parents a clearer and easier path to improving their schools. They will make it easier for parents to demand, and get, better customer service.