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Stories You Shouldn't Miss From 2013

Matt Sledge   |   December 31, 2013    7:04 PM ET

As the year wraps up, I thought I would share some of the articles that might have skipped past you in the realms of national security, civil liberties and criminal justice. Prosecutors run amok, prisoners of profit and the spooks on the loose -- crank up your Instapaper, here is a non-exhaustive list of stories from 2013 that deserve another look.

National security and foreign policy

"Covert action in Colombia" by Dana Priest in the Washington Post on December 21:

The 50-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), once considered the best-funded insurgency in the world, is at its smallest and most vulnerable state in decades, due in part to a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders, according to interviews with more than 30 former and current U.S. and Colombian officials.

"The A-Team Killings" by Matthieu Aikins in Rolling Stone on November 6:

Last spring, the remains of 10 missing Afghan villagers were dug up outside a U.S. Special Forces base -- was it a war crime or just another episode in a very dirty war?

"Did an 8-Year-Old Spy for America?" by Gregory D. Johnsen in the Atlantic on August 14:

When U.S. allies in Yemen needed help targeting an alleged al-Qaeda operative for an American drone strike, evidence suggests they turned to one of the people closest to him.

"At the second kneel of the prayers, the attack began" by Patrick Kingsley in the Guardian on July 18:

In the early hours of 8 July, 51 Muslim Brotherhood supporters camped outside the Republican Guard club in Cairo were killed by security forces. Egypt's military claimed the protesters had attempted to break into the compound with the aid of armed motorcyclists. After examining video evidence and speaking to witnesses, medics and protesters, the Guardian finds a different story.

Surveillance, digital rights and civil liberties

"After 30 Years of Silence, the Original NSA Whistleblower Looks Back" by Adrian Chen for Gawker on November 12:

In 1972, a 25-year-old Perry Fellwock sat in a Berkeley IHOP with the co-editors of Ramparts, Peter Collier and David Horowitz. He had no hesitations about talking then. He had mailed the leftist magazine an article he'd written under the name Winslow Peck, explaining that he was an Air Force veteran who had been attached to the NSA and now wanted to expose the agency.

"Facial recognition, once a battlefield tool, lands in San Diego County" by Ali Winston for the Center for Investigative Reporting on November 7:

On a residential street in San Diego County, Calif., Chula Vista police had just arrested a young woman, still in her pajamas, for possession of narcotics. Before taking her away, Officer Rob Halverson paused in the front yard, held a Samsung Galaxy tablet up to the woman's face and snapped a photo.

"Privacy Fears Grow as Cities Increase Surveillance" by Somini Sengupta for the New York Times on October 13:

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Federal grants of $7 million awarded to this city were meant largely to help thwart terror attacks at its bustling port. But instead, the money is going to a police initiative that will collect and analyze reams of surveillance data from around town -- from gunshot-detection sensors in the barrios of East Oakland to license plate readers mounted on police cars patrolling the city's upscale hills.

"Power in the Age of the Feudal Internet" by Bruce Schneier in Mind in October:

During its early days, the Internet gave coordination and efficiency to the powerless. It made them powerful, and seem unbeatable. But now the more traditional institutional powers are winning, and winning big. How these two fare long-term, and the fate of the majority of us that don't fall into either group, is an open question -- and one vitally important to the future of the Internet.

"WikiLeaks' Teenage Benedict Arnold" by Ryan Gallagher for Slate on August 9:

How the FBI used a baby-faced WikiLeaks volunteer to spy on Julian Assange.

"The Dangerous Logic of the Bradley Manning Case" by Yochai Benkler in the New Republic on March 1:

The guilty plea Manning offered could subject him to twenty years in prison -- more than enough to deter future whistleblowers. But the prosecutors seem bent on using this case to push a novel and aggressive interpretation of the law that would arm the government with a much bigger stick to prosecute vaguely-defined national security leaks, a big stick that could threaten not just members of the military, but civilians too.

"License-plate recognition has its eyes on you" by Jon Campbell for San Diego CityBeat on February 20:

Where's your car? Well, dude, it's in a huge Orwellian police database. That might seem like the plot of a bad movie, but since around 2010, police agencies in San Diego County have quietly used a network of sophisticated devices called license-plate readers (LPR) to monitor and record the movements of thousands of everyday drivers.

"Why Should I Care That No One's Reading Dzhokhar Tsarnaev His Miranda Rights?" by Emily Bazelon for Slate on April 19:

When the law gets bent out of shape for him, it's easier to bend out of shape for the rest of us.

Prisons and criminal justice

"How An HIV-Positive Man Was Sent To Prison For Having Sex -- With A Condom" by Sergio Hernandez for BuzzFeed/ProPublica on December 1:

Nick Rhoades was clerking at a Family Video store in Waverly, Iowa, one summer afternoon in 2008 when three armed detectives appeared, escorted him to a local hospital and ordered nurses to draw his blood. A dozen miles away, his mother and stepfather looked on as local sheriff's deputies searched their home for drugs -- not illegal drugs, but lifesaving prescription medications. Lab results and a bottle of pills found in the Rhoades' refrigerator confirmed the detectives' suspicions: Nick Rhoades was HIV-positive.

"Orleans Parish Prison whistleblower who helped expose problems fears for his job" by Naomi Martin for the New Orleans Times-Picayune on October 31:

An Orleans Parish jailer who helped expose rapes, stabbings and poor conditions at the lock-up by secretly providing information to the Southern Poverty Law Center for a civil-rights lawsuit that led to federal intervention, could lose his job and face criminal prosecution as the office has launched an investigation.

"The Shame of Our Prisons: New Evidence" by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow for the New York Review of Books on October 24:

As recently as five years ago, American corrections officials almost uniformly denied that rape in prison was a widespread problem. When we at Just Detention International--an organization aimed at preventing the sexual abuse of inmates--recounted stories of people we knew who had been raped in prison, we were told either that these men and women were exceptional cases, or simply that they were liars. But all this has changed.

"Prisoners of Profit" by Chris Kirkham for the Huffington Post on October 22:

The private prison industry has long fueled its growth on the proposition that it is a boon to taxpayers, delivering better outcomes at lower costs than state facilities. But significant evidence undermines that argument: the tendency of young people to return to crime once they get out, for example, and long-term contracts that can leave states obligated to fill prison beds. The harsh conditions confronting youth inside YSI's facilities, moreover, show the serious problems that can arise when government hands over social services to private contractors and essentially walks away.

"The Untouchables: America's Misbehaving Prosecutors, And The System That Protects Them" by Radley Balko for the Huffington Post on August 1:

NEW ORLEANS -- Some questions seem particularly prone to set John Thompson off. Here's one he gets a lot: Have the prosecutors who sent him to death row ever apologized?

"A Prosecutor, a Wrongful Conviction and a Question of Justice" by Joaquin Sapien for ProPublica on May 23:

Edwin Oliva, a 29-year-old petty thief and drug addict, says he was a wreck as he sat in a chair in the Brooklyn District Attorney's office in winter 1995. A year earlier, he'd told police a lie that helped implicate a possibly innocent man in a murder. Now, prosecutors wanted him to repeat his story in court; he wanted to take it back.

"Officer Serrano's Hidden Camera" by Jennifer Gonnerman for New York magazine on May 19:

The stop-and-frisk trials of Pedro Serrano: NYPD rat, NYPD hero.

"Everybody Wants a Piece of Kimani Gray" By Nick Pinto with Ryan Devereaux for the Village Voice on March 20:

How a boy's death became street theater in Flatbush.

Obama's Decision Point

Matt Sledge   |   December 12, 2013    3:13 PM ET

Ryan Lizza has written a very useful history of the legal and political debate around NSA surveillance over the last 10 years. One of the most dramatic moments comes just after Obama is inaugurated, when he is read into the intelligence community's disastrously poor record of complying with Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rulings -- in this case the widespread misuse of the bulk phone records database.

Obama's briefer is Matthew Olsen, now director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who serves as something of a Zelig-like character in the narrative, popping in to clean up the NSA's messes as necessary. It is, as Wyden told Lizza, "a very, very significant moment in the debate," the point at which the president might have used skeptical court rulings as a natural excuse to end the collection of every American's phone records.

Obama doesn't.

In February of 2009, days after Obama was sworn in, Olsen and Benjamin Powell, a Bush holdover and the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, went to the White House to brief the new President and Eric Holder, the new Attorney General, on the N.S.A.'s programs. There was no way to know how Obama would react. During the campaign, Holder, who was serving as a top legal adviser to Obama, had said that Bush's original surveillance program operated in "direct defiance of federal law." Obama had sponsored the legislation curbing the authority of the business-records provision, which was now crucial to the N.S.A. Greg Craig, Obama's White House counsel, was also at the meeting. Because Obama had not been a member of the Intelligence Committee, much of the information was new to him. Powell, who led the briefing, and Olsen also had some news: the fisa court had just ruled that the phone-records program had so many compliance issues that the court was threatening to shut it down. The court was waiting for a response from the new Administration about how to proceed.


On February 17th, about two weeks after the White House briefing, Olsen, in a secret court filing, made the new Administration's first official statement about Bush's phone-metadata program: "The government respectfully submits that the Court should not rescind or modify the authority."


It was the first in a series of decisions by Obama to institutionalize some of the most controversial national-security policies of the Bush Administration. Faced with a long list of policies to roll back--torture, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of the prison at Guantánamo Bay to hold suspected terrorists--reining in the N.S.A.'s surveillance programs might have seemed like a low priority. As core members of Al Qaeda were killed, the danger shifted to terrorists who were less organized and more difficult to detect, making the use of the N.S.A.'s powerful surveillance tools even more seductive. "That's why the N.S.A. tools remain crucial," Olsen told me. "Because the threat is evolving and becoming more diverse."

For me the piece left lingering the question of how big a role John Brennan played in Obama's NSA evolution. Brennan goes unmentioned, but during 2008, when he served as a counterterrorism adviser to the Obama campaign, he was months ahead of the candidate's reversal on retroactively immunizing the telecom companies for collaborating with Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.

Perhaps the high priest of drones also blessed the NSA.

NSA Cellphone Tracking: What About the Fourth Amendment?

Matt Sledge   |   December 4, 2013    4:12 PM ET

Barton Gellman just cracked open a story that's been on the horizon since the NSA leaks began: the agency is tracking the location of hundreds of millions of cellphones, including many owned by Americans.

The location tracking is supposed to be targeted at foreigners, but in practice the agency is unwilling or unable not to pick up many American's data as well:

The number of Americans whose locations are tracked as part of the NSA's collection of data overseas is impossible to determine from the Snowden documents alone, and senior intelligence officials declined to offer an estimate.

"It's awkward for us to try to provide any specific numbers," one intelligence official said in a telephone interview. An NSA spokeswoman who took part in the call cut in to say the agency has no way to calculate such a figure.

An intelligence lawyer, speaking with his agency's permission, said location data are obtained by methods "tuned to be looking outside the United States," a formulation he repeated three times. When U.S. cellphone data are collected, he said, the data are not covered by the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures.

An intel lawyer (probably NSA, CIA or ODNI) claims tracking U.S. cellphone locations doesn't violate the Fourth Amendment. Weren't the Founding Fathers paranoiac revolutionaries who would have been scared out of their buckskin breeches by a government tracking our every move? Not according to the government, which maintains that cell site locations are just metadata, electronic flotsam not protected by a warrant requirement. In a domestic law enforcement setting, the courts have split as to whether that argument holds water.

The NSA's surveillance, however, was likely never approved by a court at all. The NSA likely believes it has sidestepped the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's jurisdiction because it only "incidentally" collects an untold number of Americans' locations while targeting foreigners. And with no surveillance court oversight, as flawed as it might be, there is no check on the agency's reading of the Fourth Amendment.

Ray Kelly's $1.5 Million Bodyguards, And The Murder Plot That Wasn't

Matt Sledge   |   December 4, 2013   12:15 PM ET

Over at DNAinfo, Murray Weiss is reporting from police sources that Ray Kelly will keep a 10-officer, $1.5 million a year police detail in his retirement.

Kelly will justify the cost, it seems, by relying on an assessment from the NYPD's controversial Intelligence Division (which was originally mostly responsible for the safety of dignitaries and celebrities visiting New York, before in morphed into a mini-CIA).

I've put in a request with the NYPD's press team for a copy of Intel's memo. A taxpayer expense of this magnitude should be justified in a written document available for public review. Don't hold your breath.

In the meantime, this May 17 declaration from Deputy Commissioner David Cohen in one of the NYPD surveillance lawsuits may provide some insight on the perceived threats to Kelly's safety.

After the officers who shot Sean Bell were acquitted, Cohen wrote, surveillance was ramped up citywide "in response to the possibility of unlawful activity and allowed for informed decision-making on the likelihood of violence or other unlawful activity, as well as resource deployment decisions."

"The shooting and subsequent trial sparked demonstrations across New York City and widespread threats of violence against members of the NYPD, including Police Commissioner Kelly, who was the target of a murder plot motivated by the Sean Bell matter," Cohen wrote.

Ray Kelly murder scheme! Sounds pretty serious. Until you learn who was behind the 2007 "plot": a 400-pound, imprisoned, impoverished wheelchair-bound "mentally ill" man with a rap sheet the length of your arm.

"I want them to feel like I'm a motherf------ terrorist," the brilliant plotter allegedly told an undercover cop (he pled guilty to criminal solicitation).

"I don't think this had anything to do with Sean Bell," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the time. "This is a deranged person and sadly, there are always these kinds of threats against the police commissioner and against others in public service, and we take them all very seriously."

The Speculations Of Judith Miller, Boston Bombing Edition

  |   April 25, 2013    5:09 PM ET

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Bill Thompson Backs NYPD Inspector General

Matt Sledge   |   March 20, 2013    5:45 PM ET

The horse may be a little bit out of the barn on this one, but that isn't stopping Bill Thompson from taking a position on the proposal to create an NYPD inspector general. On Wednesday he issued this statement:

I support installing an Inspector General at the NYPD. The need for an IG reflects the City's failure to reform Stop and Frisk and see our communities as partners, instead of adversaries in fighting crime. When I'm Mayor, I will make sure our city remains safe without stigmatizing Black and Latino New Yorkers. We need an IG committed to increasing transparency in the NYPD, with an opportunity to independently review policies and procedures.

When I asked Thompson about whether he'd like to see an IG back in February, he declined to answer.

Thompson's statement comes one day after City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced a "broad agreement" on the plan. It's not so broad to include Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who on Wednesday vowed to veto the IG bill.

NYPD Inspector General Plan Moves Forward, But Political Jockeying Continues

  |   March 19, 2013    5:38 PM ET

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Google Transparency Report Offers Details On National Security Letters

  |   March 5, 2013    4:58 PM ET

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Brooklyn Court Dismisses NYPD Stop-And-Frisk Protest Charges

  |   February 28, 2013    2:57 PM ET

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Special Operations Command Backs Away From Yale Training Center

Matt Sledge   |   February 22, 2013    4:40 PM ET

File this one under curiouser and curiouser: a controversial Green Berets center meant to train soldiers in "cross-cultural" interactions by using members of New Haven's immigrant community as interview subjects won't be coming to Yale University after all. The interview training program was supposedly going to be called the US Special Operations Command Center of Excellence for Operational Neuroscience.

But Thursday night School of Medicine Dean Robert J. Alpern announced in a statement that "Members of the Yale and New Haven communities have raised concerns about a possible center for operational neuroscience that was reported in the press. In light of the issues raised, we are not moving forward on any such center until we have fully investigated all these issues."

That was perhaps not surprising, given the backlash on campus, in the city, and among Yale alums. What is strange, though, is the Special Operations Command's reaction to the whole thing. Remember, US SOCOM was supposed to be ponying up a total of $1.8 million over three years to actually run the training program. They confirmed that in an email to me Thursday night.

But spokesman Kenneth McGraw also told me on Thursday that "I am not certain where the name US Special Operations Command Center of Excellence for Operational Neuroscience came from, and, to the best of my knowledge, USSOCOM has no intention of establishing a center of excellence for operational neuroscience."

Who came up with the name? I circled back to Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Charles A. Morgan III, who's at the center of this whole thing. He did not respond to my question. (He says he's knocked out with the flu.)

Friday afternoon, after Yale announced its hold on the center, SOCOM spokesman McGraw put out another statement:

After a review of the facts, we have determined the information initially provided to and released by this office concerning a center of excellence for operational neuroscience was incorrect. US Special Operations Command has not and will not provide Yale funds to establish a USSOCOM Center for Excellence for Operational Neuroscience. We sincerely apologize for any problems, concerns or confusion releasing the erroneous information has caused Yale, it student body and the citizens of New Haven.

SOCOM's reference to "erroneous information" probably won't be very satisfying to anyone who is wondering how this whole thing came about, or why the Department of Defense backed away from it so quickly. My efforts to get an explanation on the record have not been successful. But we do know this: that interview center won't be coming to Yale.

Omar Deghayes, Former Guantanamo Prisoner, Speaks Out On Camp

  |   February 21, 2013    2:48 PM ET

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Mid-Week Links

  |   February 13, 2013    3:09 PM ET

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Handschu Lawyers File Against NYPD, Brennan Defended

Matt Sledge   |   February 4, 2013   10:52 AM ET

The lawyers in the long-running Handschu civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD have made a new filing -- this time, over the police department's controversial program of spying on Muslims.

Dan Klaidman defends John Brennan. His CIA confirmation hearings begin Thursday.

If you're in New York on Wednesday, come see Tash Lennard and me co-moderate a panel on the NDAA lawsuit. Big names in the house: Michael Moore, Chris Hedges, Daniel Ellsberg, Thomas Drake and more.

Ayotte, Graham and McCain Will Participate In Hedges Oral Arguments

Matt Sledge   |   February 1, 2013    5:06 PM ET

Kelly Ayotte, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain will have five minutes on Wednesday to explain why a lawsuit targeting the indefinite detention should be swatted down. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals granted their motion to participate in oral arguments in the Hedges v. Obama NDAA lawsuit on Thursday, setting up a court appearance for their lawyer on February 6.

The "three amigos" -- or in this case three amici -- should have something interesting to say. They oppose Hedges and the other activists trying to knock out indefinite detention. But government lawyers nevertheless asked the court to deny them time in oral, arguing that their views "should properly be aired in the political branches, not the judiciary," and that Lindsey Graham's Senate floor musings about a "rogue executive branch" misusing its detention powers didn't exactly help their case.

If you'd like a preview of what their lawyer, David Rivkin, will argue in court, check out their amicus brief.