Monday, April 27, 2009

The Pentagon's Cyber Command: Formidable Infrastructure arrayed against the American People

The Pentagon's Cyber Command: Formidable Infrastructure arrayed against the American People

By Tom Burghardt

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The Wall Street Journal revealed April 24 that current National Security Agency (NSA) director Lt. General Keith Alexander will "head the Pentagon's new Cyber Command."

Friday's report follows an April 22 piece published by the Journal announcing the proposed reorganization. The Obama administration's cybersecurity initiative will, according to reports, "reshape the military's efforts to protect its networks from attacks by hackers, especially those from countries such as China and Russia."

When he was a presidential candidate, Obama had pledged to elevate cybersecurity as a national security issue, "equating it in significance with nuclear and biological weapons," the Journal reported.

The new Pentagon command, according to The Washington Post, "would affect U.S. Strategic Command, whose mission includes ensuring U.S. 'freedom of action' in space and cyberspace, and the National Security Agency, which shares Pentagon cybersecurity responsibilities with the Defense Information Systems Agency."

How Cyber Command's launch would effect civilian computer networks is unclear. However, situating the new agency at Ft. Meade, under the watchful eyes of National Security Agency snoops, should set alarm bells ringing.

Charged with coordinating military cybersecurity programs, including computer network defense as well as a top secret mission to launch cyber attack operations against any and all "adversaries," the new command has been mired in controversy ever since the U.S. Air Force declared it would be the lead agency overseeing Cyber Command with the release of its "Strategic Vision" last year.

Since that self-promotional disclosure however, multiple scandals have rocked the Air Force. In 2007, a B-52 Stratofortress bomber flew some 1,500 miles from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana with six livewrote, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles affixed to its wings. For nearly six hours, the Air Force was unable to account for the missing weapons. While the scandal elicited scarcely a yawn from the corporate media, physicist Pavel Podvig

The point is that the nuclear warheads were allowed to leave Minot and that it was surprised airmen at Barksdale who discovered them, not an accounting system that's supposed to track the warheads' every movement (maybe even in real time). We simply don't know how long it would've taken to discover the warheads had they actually left the air force's custody and been diverted into the proverbial "wrong hands." Of course, it could be argued that the probability of this kind of diversion is very low, but anyone who knows anything about how the United States handles its nuclear weapons has said that the probability of what happened at Minot was also essentially zero. ("U.S. loose nukes," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 12 September 2007)

As a result of the affair and numerous procurement scandals, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Mosley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne were fired by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for incompetence. Numerous defense analysts believe this was a major reason why the Air Force was supplanted as the lead Cyber agency.

While one can reasonably support government efforts to protect critical infrastructure such as electrical grids, chemical plants, nuclear power stations or the nation's air traffic control system from potentially devastating attacks that would endanger the health and safety of millions of Americans, these goals can be achieved by writing better programs. Yet from its inception, Cyber Command has been theorized as a nodal point for launching crippling attacks against the civilian and military infrastructure of imperialism's enemies.

As I reported last July, Air Force Cyber Command (AFCYBER) is centered at the secretive Barksdale Air Force Base. At the time, AFCYBER had a unified command structure and a $2 billion budget through the first year of its operations.

The Air Force Times reported last year that AFCYBER "has established 17 new enlisted and officer Air Force Specialty Codes--creating major changes in the career paths of more than 32,000 airmen." Whether or not the command structure already in place will transfer to NSA is unknown as of this writing. Nor is it clear whether AFCYBER's offensive capability--real or imagined--will transfer to NSA. But with billions of dollars already spent on a score of top secret initiatives, included those hidden within Pentagon Special Access (SAP) or black programs, its a safe bet they will.

Defense analyst William M. Arkin points out in Code Names, that these programs fall under the rubric of Special Technical Operations (STO). Arkin defines these as,

Classified SAPs and other programs, weapons and operations associated with the CIA and "other government agencies." Entire separate channels of communication and clearances exist to compartment these military versions of clandestine and covert operations involving special operations, paramilitary activity, covert action, and cyber-warfare. A STO "cell" exists in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and at most operational military commands to segregate STO activity from normal operational activity, even highly classified activity. (Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs, and Operations in the 9/11 World, Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press, 2005, p. 20)

Specific cyber-warfare programs identified by Arkin include the following: Adversary: an Air Force information warfare targeting system; Arena: an "object-based" simulation program to create "country studies of electronic infrastructure characteristics, targeting analyses, operational information warfare plans" as well as nearly three dozen other cyber-war programs and/or exercises.

Many of the Pentagon's cyber-warfare initiatives flow directly from research conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For example, the agency's Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) has a brief to "create the advanced information processing and exploitation science, technologies, and systems for revolutionary improvements in capability across the spectrum of national security needs."

As can be seen from the brief survey above, the vast majority of Pentagon programs concern Cyber Command's offensive capability of which denial of service and other attacks against "adversaries" in the heimat are a distinct possibility. The Journal reports,

The Department of Homeland Security is charged with securing the government's nonmilitary networks, and cybersecurity experts said the Obama administration will have to better define the extent of this military support to Homeland Security. "It's a fine line" between providing needed technical expertise to support federal agencies improving their own security and deeper, more invasive programs, said Amit Yoran, a former senior cybersecurity official at the Homeland Security Department. (Siobhan Gorman, "Gates to Nominate NSA Chief to Head New Cyber Command," The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2009)

The Obama administration is expected to announce the the new agency's launch next week, after completing what it terms a "comprehensive review" in addition to recommendations for cybersecurity policy.

Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesperson, told the Journal that Gates is "planning to make changes to our command structure to better reflect the increasing threat posed by cyber warfare," but "we have nothing to announce at this time." Morrell said the Department of Defense's 2010 budget proposal "calls for hiring hundreds more cybersecurity experts."

Aside from lining the pockets of enterprising grifters in the shadowy world populated by intelligence corporations, where top secret clearances are traded like highly-prized baseball cards, the potential for abuse by NSA given that agency's key role in illegal domestic surveillance raise the prospect of further entrenching the agency in our lives.

While Alexander sought to allay fears that NSA was out to run the nation's cybersecurity programs, he hastened to add that the agency's "tremendous technical capabilities" would be used to "assist" DHS in securing the government's civilian networks. But given AFCYBER's brief for offensive operations, what does this mean for civil liberties?

As The New York Times reported April 17, with NSA leading the charge to control "the government's rapidly growing cybersecurity programs," critics within the national security apparatus fear the move by Gates "could give the spy agency too much control over government computer networks." The Times avers,

Rod Beckstrom, who resigned in March as director of the National Cyber Security Center at the Homeland Security Department, said in an interview that he feared that the N.S.A.'s push for a greater role in guarding the government's computer systems could give it the power to collect and analyze every e-mail message, text message and Google search conducted by every employee in every federal agency. (James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, "Control of Cybersecurity Becomes Divisive Issue," The New York Times, April 17, 2009)

This is hardly an issue that should only concern government insiders or those who engage in bureaucratic in-fighting as if it were a blood sport. As a Pentagon agency, NSA has positioned itself to seize near total control over the country's electronic infrastructure, thereby exerting an intolerable influence--and chilling effect--over the nation's political life.

As we have seen in our recent history, NSA and their partners at CIA, FBI, et. al., have targeted political dissidents: to varying degrees, antiwar organizers, socialist, anarchist and environmental activists have fallen under NSA's electronic driftnet, most recently during last year's Republican National Convention.

As I reported last November, during the RNC conclave in St. Paul, Minnesota, local, state, federal officials as well as private security and telecommunications corporations conspired to target activists, journalists and concerned citizens during the so-called National Special Security Event.

The whistleblowing website Wikileaks published a leaked planning document which outlined the close coordination across multiple agencies, including the FBI, NSA, U.S. Northern Command and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Cell-phones and other electronic communications were routinely monitored in real-time and NGA provided detailed analysis derived from military spy satellites.

A "Strategic Vision" in the Service of Repression

Although the Air Force has lost out to NSA over control of Cyber Command, AFCYBER's planning document still provides a valuable glimpse into the formidable infrastructure arrayed against the American people.

In the view of Air Force theorists, the strategic environment confronting imperialism is described as "unpredictable and extremely dangerous," characterized "by the confluence of globalization, economic disparities, and competition for scarce resources."

And as "economic disparities" grow, particularly during a period of profound capitalist economic meltdown, newer and more effective measures to ensure compliance are required by the ruling class and its state. This is underscored by Cyber Command's goal "to achieve situational dominance at a time and place of our choosing." [emphasis added] According to the Air Force,

Global vigilance requires the ability to sense and signal across the electromagnetic spectrum. Global reach requires the ability to connect and transmit, using a wide array of communications networks to move data across the earth nearly instantaneously. Global power is the ability to hold at risk or strike any target with electromagnetic energy and ultimately deliver kinetic and non-kinetic effects across all domains. These cyberspace capabilities will allow us to secure our infrastructure, conduct military operations whenever necessary, and degrade or eliminate the military capabilities of our adversaries. (Air Force Cyber Command, "Strategic Vision," no date)

As Wired defense analyst Noah Shachtman wrote last year,

The Air Force wants a suite of hacker tools, to give it "access" to--and "full control" of--any kind of computer there is. And once the info warriors are in, the Air Force wants them to keep tabs on their "adversaries' information infrastructure completely undetected." ...

Traditionally, the military has been extremely reluctant to talk much about offensive operations online. Instead, the focus has normally been on protecting against electronic attacks. But in the last year or so, the tone has changed--and become more bellicose. "Cyber, as a warfighting domain . . . like air, favors the offense," said Lani Kass, a special assistant to the Air Force Chief of Staff who previously headed up the service's Cyberspace Task Force. ("Air Force Aims for 'Full Control' of 'Any and All' Computers," Wired, May 13, 2008)

While the cut and color of the uniform may have changed under the Obama administration, placing Cyber Command under NSA's wing will almost certainly transform "cybersecurity" into a euphemism for keeping the rabble in line. Indeed, cybersecurity operations are fully theorized as a means of achieving "full-spectrum dominance" via "Cyberspace Offensive Counter-Operations,"

Cyberspace favors offensive operations. These operations will deny, degrade, disrupt, destroy, or deceive an adversary. Cyberspace offensive operations ensure friendly freedom of action in cyberspace while denying that same freedom to our adversaries. We will enhance our capabilities to conduct electronic systems attack, electromagnetic systems interdiction and attack, network attack, and infrastructure attack operations. Targets include the adversary's terrestrial, airborne, and space networks, electronic attack and network attack systems, and the adversary itself. As an adversary becomes more dependent on cyberspace, cyberspace offensive operations have the potential to produce greater effects. ("Strategic Vision," op. cit.) [emphasis added]

And when those "greater effects" are directed against American citizens theorized as "adversaries" by U.S. militarists and well-heeled corporate grifters, the problems posed by a panoptic surveillance state for a functioning democracy increase astronomically.

The already slim protections allegedly afforded by the shameful FISA Amendments Act have already been breeched by NSA. As The New York Times reported April 16, NSA interception of the private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans have escalated "in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year."

As Wired reported April 17, the NSA isn't the only agency conducting cyber operations against American citizens. One of the FBI's International Terrorism Operations Sections requested an assist from the Bureau's Cryptographic and Electronic Analysis Unit, CEAU, according to documents obtained by the magazine under the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI "geek squad" was in a position to conduct a "remote computer attack" against the target, and that "they could assist with a wireless hack to obtain a file tree, but not the hard drive content."

This followed an April 16 report published by Wired that a "sophisticated FBI-produced spyware program has played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in federal investigations into extortion plots, terrorist threats and hacker attacks in cases stretching back at least seven years, newly declassified documents show."

But as I documented last year in a case involving activists targeted during anti-RNC protests, with "preemptive policing" all the rage in Washington, the same suite of hacking tools and spyware used to target criminals and terrorists are just as easily deployed against political activists, particularly socialists, anarchists and environmental critics who challenge capitalism's free market paradigm.

Despite these revelations, the Obama administration is poised to hand control of the nation's electronic infrastructure over to an out-of-control agency riddled with corporate grifters and militarists whose bottom-line is not the security of the American people but rather, the preservation of an economically and morally bankrupt system of private profit fueled by wars of aggression and conquest.

New York man receives 6-year “terror” sentence for Hezbollah TV broadcasts

New York man receives 6-year “terror” sentence for Hezbollah TV broadcasts

By Peter Daniels

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A New York man was sentenced last week to 69 months in prison on charges of assisting Hezbollah, the mass-based Lebanese Shiite movement, by providing satellite television services that included broadcasts by the party’s television station, Al Manar.

Javed Iqbal, 45 years old, was first arrested in August 2006, charged under a 30-year-old statute, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. A small businessman who was born in Pakistan and came to the US as a teenager, he had used satellite equipment at his home in the New York City borough of Staten Island to provide programming for various outlets, including Christian evangelists as well as Hezbollah.

The law under which Iqbal was charged had been amended by the Patriot Act after the September 11. The revised statute was used to target individuals accused of providing aid to organizations designated as terrorist by the US State Department.

Iqbal’s prosecution had the effect of criminalizing speech and utilized the technique of guilt by association. Law professor and civil liberties advocate David Cole pointed this out at the time.

“Mr. Iqbal is being penalized for doing nothing more than facilitating speech, and is being punished not because the speech itself is harmful, but because it is associated with Hezbollah,” Cole said.

Moreover, the original legislation had been amended in 1988 to include an exemption for news content. The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the arrest of Iqbal on the grounds that it ignored this constitutional exception to the law, but the judge in US District Court in Manhattan later upheld the charge, claiming that the prosecution was based not on content but on specific conduct, that of providing material support to a terrorist group.

Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian Islamic movement which had its origins more than a quarter century ago in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, inflicted a political and strategic blow to the Israeli regime when it fought back against Israeli attacks in 2006. It is now the largest party in the country with 11 seats in the Lebanese parliament and virtual veto power over government policy. It regularly mobilizes hundreds of thousands of supporters in mass demonstrations.

The State Department first labeled it as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997, under the Clinton Administration, in line with the foreign policy interests of US imperialism and its Zionist ally.

Hezbollah’s broadcasts, meanwhile, remain freely available on the Internet.

Mr. Iqbal is apparently not affiliated with Hezbollah, but has been caught up in the “war on terror.” A small businessman, he first challenged the charges, but, facing a jail sentence of up to 15 years, was eventually pressured into accepting a guilty plea on a single charge. His attorney read a statement in Federal District Court on April 23 stating, “I have not harmed anyone in my whole life,” but expressing sorrow for what he called a mistake that had hurt him “financially, emotionally and physically.”

This case was begun under the Bush regime and concluded under the Obama Administration. It is one more sign that the recent change in terminology, in which the White House has apparently dropped the expression “war on terror” for more innocuous-sounding language, is a change in terminology only, and not in foreign policy or the attacks on free speech and other democratic rights.

US jobless claims soar, home sales decline

US jobless claims soar, home sales decline

By Andre Damon

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The US Labor Department reported Thursday that there were 640,000 new claims for unemployment compensation last week, up 27,000 from the previous week. The US economy has been hemorrhaging jobs at a rate of well over 600,000 per month since January.

The report noted that the number of people re-applying for unemployment benefits reached 6.13 million, setting a new record for the 12th consecutive week.

New Jobless ClaimsNew jobless claims

Also on Thursday, the Labor Department reported that US employers carried out 2,933 mass layoffs in March. Those layoffs eliminated 299,388 jobs. The department defines a mass layoff as affecting at least 50 people.

Nearly half of the mass layoffs were in the manufacturing sector. There were 164 more mass layoffs in March than in the previous month. Compared to March of 2008, mass layoffs have nearly doubled.

Additionally, the Labor Department reported on April 17 that unemployment rates rose in 46 of the 50 states in March. Michigan, wracked by the collapse in the auto industry, again had the highest state unemployment rate at 12.6 percent. It was followed by Oregon with 12.1 percent, South Carolina with 11.4 percent and California with 11.2 percent. The jobless rate in Michigan jumped 0.6 percent from February.

Yahoo announced this week that it would lay off 700 employees in its third set of job cuts since January. Halliburton, the oil contractor, announced that it eliminated 2,000 jobs in the first quarter of this year.

The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that sales of existing homes fell 3 percent in March. Home sales are down by 7.1 percent over the previous year, and housing values have dropped by 12 percent over the same period. The sales decline, higher than projected by economists, followed an unexpected increase of 4.9 percent in February.

The realtors’ organization said that “distressed” home sales, including foreclosed properties, now account for half of all home sales. Such properties typically sold for 20 percent less than other properties.

On Friday, the Commerce Department reported that new home sales fell 0.6 percent to an annual rate of 356,000 in March. That was better than analysts had projected, but still down 30.6 percent compared with the same period a year ago. New home sales in the US have fallen a staggering 74 percent from the peak in July 2005.

Sales fell most sharply in the Northeast, 31 percent, and 7.8 percent in the Midwest. They were unchanged in the South but surged 15 percent in the West, where the housing collapse was the most precipitous. Median new home prices fell to $201,400 compared with $229,300 in March 2008.

Low interest rates, facilitated by the Federal Reserve’s intervention into bond markets, plunging house prices and an $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers have not pushed up overall sales. This is, in part, because banks have constricted their lending, and the soaring jobless rate has depressed demand.

Fitch Ratings said this week that it does not expect house values to stop falling until late 2010. It issued a report predicting that house prices will fall another 12.5 percent from the end of 2008, revising its previous projection of a 10 percent decline. US house values have fallen by 27 percent since the housing bubble imploded.

Orders for durable goods in March fell 0.8 percent, the Commerce Department reported Friday. Durable goods are defined as those meant to last several years. The March decline was less than forecast.

But in another sign of deepening slump, the Labor Department reported last week that consumer prices fell by 0.4 percent over the past year to March. This marks the first year that consumer prices dropped since 1955. Prices declined 0.1 percent from February to March of this year.

Most indicators of crisis have surpassed the projections of economists. In mid-2008, Nouriel Roubini, the New York University economist, estimated that bank losses would top $2 trillion. This was among the biggest estimates at the time. It has now been doubled by the International Monetary Fund’s new projection of $4.1 trillion in bank losses, with write-offs in the United States totaling $2.7 trillion.

The economic indicators suggest that the slump is likely to be far deeper than the projections of the Obama administration. The government’s bank “stress tests” assume that, in the most adverse case, the unemployment rate will peak at 10.4 percent in late 2010.

But the unemployment rate hit 8.5 percent last month, and has been rising on average by 0.43 percentage points every month for the past four months. If it continues at this pace, it will hit the government’s outer limit projection in July, over a year ahead of White House estimates.

The Obama administration estimates that its economic stimulus plan will “create or save” 3.5 million jobs. This is equivalent to slightly more than five months’ job losses at current rates.

4 more banks fail, lifting this year's tally to 29

4 more banks fail, lifting this year's tally to 29

Regulators shut banks in Georgia, Michigan, Idaho, California; 29 so far tops 2008 total

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Regulators on Friday shut down four more banks, boosting the number of failures this year to 29 -- more bank closures than in all of last year.

The latest banks seized were American Southern Bank in Georgia, Michigan Heritage Bank, First Bank of Idaho, and First Bank of Beverly Hills in California.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. will continue to insure deposits at American Southern Bank, Michigan Heritage Bank, and First Bank of Idaho. The FDIC will payout the insured deposits of First Bank of Beverly Hills. Regular deposit accounts are insured up to $250,000.

The Georgia Department of Banking and Finance took over American Southern Bank, based in Kennesaw, Ga., while the Michigan Office of Financial and Insurance Regulation took control of Michigan Heritage Bank, based in Farmington Hills, Mich. First Bank of Idaho, based in Ketchum, was closed by the Office of Thrift Supervision. First Bank of Beverly Hills, based in Calabasas, Calif., was closed by the California Department of Financial Institutions. The FDIC was appointed receiver of all four banks.

American Southern Bank had about $112.3 million in assets and $104.3 million in deposits as of March 30.

The FDIC said a majority of the bank's deposits will be assumed by Bank of North Georgia, based in Alpharetta. Bank of North Georgia will not assume $48.7 million in brokered deposits held by American Southern Bank. The FDIC said it will pay the brokers directly for the amount of their funds.

In addition to acquiring $55.6 million of the failed bank's deposits, Bank of North Georgia agreed to purchase about $31.3 million in assets. The FDIC will retain the rest for eventual sale.

American Southern Bank branches will reopen Monday as offices of Bank of North Georgia.

Michigan Heritage Bank had about $184.6 million in assets and $151.7 million in deposits as of Dec. 31.

The FDIC said a majority of the bank's deposits will be assumed by Level One Bank, also based in Farmington Hills. Level One will not assume $50 million in brokered deposits held by Michigan Heritage, and instead, the FDIC will pay the brokers directly.

In addition to acquiring $101.7 million of Michigan Heritage's deposits, Level One agreed to purchase about $46.1 million in assets. The FDIC also will keep the bank's remaining assets for future sale.

The three offices of Michigan Heritage will reopen Monday as branches of Level One.

First Bank of Idaho had about $488.9 million in assets and $374 million in deposits as of Dec. 31.

The FDIC said the bank's deposits, excluding $112.8 million in brokered deposits, will be assumed by U.S. Bank of Minneapolis. The FDIC will pay the brokers directly for the amount of their funds.

In addition to acquiring the failed banks deposits, U.S. Bank will purchase about $17.8 million in assets. The FDIC will retain the rest for eventual sale.

First Bank of Idaho had seven branches in Idaho and Wyoming. All seven offices will reopen on Monday as branches of U.S. Bank.

Customers of American Southern Bank, Michigan Heritage Bank, and First Bank of Idaho can still write checks and use ATM or debit cards, and loan customers should continue to make their payments as usual.

For First Bank of Beverly Hills customers who have deposits placed directly with the bank and not through a broker, the FDIC will mail checks for their insured funds on Monday. For insured deposits from brokers, the FDIC will pay the brokers directly upon proper documentation.

First Bank of Beverly Hills had about $1.5 billion in assets and $1 billion in deposits as of Dec. 31. It is estimated that the bank had $179,000 of uninsured deposits.

Friday's bank closings mark the fifth in Georgia this year, with the last being Omni National Bank in Atlanta on March 29; and the fourth in California, with the last being County Bank, in Merced, on Feb. 6. The last FDIC-backed institution to be closed in Michigan was Main Street Bank, in Northville, in October 2008. The last FDIC-insured institution to fail in Idaho was Northwestern Federal Savings and Loan Association, in Boise, in August 1988.

The list of bank failures is growing as falling home prices and rising unemployment cause more individuals and businesses to default on their debt.

The failures have sapped billions from the deposit insurance fund. It now stands at its lowest level in nearly a quarter-century, $18.9 billion as of Dec. 31, compared with $52.4 billion at the end of 2007.

The FDIC expects that bank failures will cost the insurance fund around $65 billion through 2013.

The 29 bank collapses this year follow 25 failures in 2008, which included two of the biggest savings and loans, Washington Mutual Inc. and IndyMac Bank. Last year's total was more than in the previous five years combined and up from only three failures in 2007.

The FDIC had 252 banks and thrifts on its list of troubled institutions at the end of 2008, up from 171 in the third quarter.

American Southern Bank customers with questions can call the FDIC toll-free at 800-323-6111. Michigan Heritage Bank customers can call 866-954-9526. First Bank of Beverly Hills customers can call 800-523-8089. First Bank of Idaho customers can call 800-591-2845.

ACLU: US Attorney used GPS to track cell phones

ACLU: US Attorney used GPS to track cell phones


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A former federal prosecutor running for governor approved the tracking of citizens through their cell phones without warrants while he was head of the U.S. Attorney's Office for New Jersey, civil rights attorneys said Thursday.

Christopher Christie, a former U.S. Attorney who is the Republican front-runner in the governor's race said all actions were approved by the court.

The American Civil Liberties Union released documents Thursday showing federal officials in New Jersey have gotten judges to approve the surveillance without showing evidence that a crime is taking place.

Tracking without a warrant disregards an internal U.S. Justice Department recommendation that prosecutors obtain probable cause warrants before gathering location data from cell phones.

Using a little-known GPS chip inside a cell phone, federal prosecutors can locate a person to within about 30 feet. They're also able to gather less exact location data by tracing mobile phone signals as they ping off cell towers.

The less rigorous standard of obtaining a court order rather than a warrant was used in 98 New Jersey cases since Sept. 11, 2001, resulting in 83 prosecutions, according to the documents. Two other New Jersey cases remain under seal.

Of the cases in which probable cause wasn't established, 19 allowed the most precise tracking available, the documents show. Those cases occurred after the November 2007 Justice Department recommendation that prosecutors seek warrants. Christie said he changed the policy to comply with Washington's recommendation 11 months later.

"There was no action of the U.S. Attorney's Office that was done without the consultation and approval of the court," Christie said Thursday. "Any suggestion to the contrary is ill-informed."

The documents released by the ACLU show that of states randomly sampled, New Jersey and Florida used GPS tracking without obtaining probable cause warrants. Four other states _ California, Louisiana, Indiana, Nevada _ and the District of Columbia reported having obtained GPS data only after showing probable cause.

The documents are part of an ongoing lawsuit by the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation on how the government tracks cell phone users. The ACLU sought documents under the Freedom of Information Act to learn about the tracking because the cases are typically under court seal, ACLU lawyer Catherine Crump said.

Crump argued in court papers that government tracking without a probable cause warrant is a violation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure. Government prosecutors have argued that only a court order showing the tracking data is relevant to a criminal investigation is needed.

"A problem that we often face is that technology evolves faster than the law. This is an evolving legal issue," said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Newark.

Christie was the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey for seven years before resigning Dec. 1. If he wins the party's primary in June, Christie would face Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat seeking a second term.

Acting U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Ralph J. Marra Jr. said GPS tracking is typically used in cases of "known, dangerous criminals or in the apprehension of fugitives."

In Florida, there were 63 cases since September 11, 2001 in which federal prosecutors obtained a court order to track suspects via cell phone. It's unclear how many resulted in prosecutions.

Obama Rejects Truth Panel

Obama Rejects Truth Panel

Commission Would Have Investigated Abuses in Terrorism Fight

By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane

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President Obama rebuffed calls for a commission to investigate alleged abuses under the Bush administration in fighting terrorism, telling congressional leaders at a White House meeting yesterday that he wants to look forward instead of litigating the past.

In a lengthy exchange with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), Obama appeared to back away from a statement earlier this week that suggested he could support an independent commission to examine possible abuses, according to several attendees who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could discuss the private meeting freely. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, also seeking to clarify the president's position, told reporters that "the president determined the concept didn't seem altogether workable in this case" because of the intense partisan atmosphere built around the issue.

"The last few days might be evidence of why something like this might just become a political back and forth," Gibbs said.

The push for a "truth commission," which grew from the efforts of a few human rights groups, gained fresh momentum with last week's release of the memos from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel that provided the basis for the enhanced interrogation techniques, including the practice of simulated drowning known as waterboarding. Obama has said he is opposed to holding CIA interrogators legally accountable, but in a statement last week, he left open the possibility of legal jeopardy for those who formulated the policy.

On Tuesday, Obama explicitly raised the prospect of legal consequences for Bush administration officials who authorized the techniques applied to "high value" terrorism suspects, and said if Congress is intent on investigating the tactics, an independent commission might provide a less partisan forum than a congressional panel.

Some key lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), pounced on his remarks to push for a commission with subpoena power and the ability to grant immunity to some witnesses.

As Republicans rejected the idea, Democrats were deeply divided.

Yesterday in a briefing before the White House meeting, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) instead said that the Senate intelligence committee would conduct its own review, a process that could stretch through December.

At almost the same time at another briefing across the Capitol, Pelosi told reporters that she has "always been for a truth commission," a position she reiterated at the White House meeting, one participant in the session said.

But a White House official present at the meeting said Obama told lawmakers that a commission would "open the door to a protracted, backward-looking discussion."

Boehner also urged Obama to release further classified memos detailing the questionable interrogation techniques. Former vice president Richard B. Cheney has argued that the memos will make clear that aggressive tactics yielded valuable intelligence information that prevented further terrorist attacks.

Obama responded that Cheney had done "a good job at telling his side of the story," according to Democrats and Republicans in the room. "Obama said the memos weren't as clear-cut," one attendee said.

Earlier yesterday, Boehner criticized Pelosi and leading congressional Democrats who are pushing for the panel by noting that they had been briefed on interrogation tactics as far back as September 2002.

"All of this information was downloaded to congressional leaders of both parties with no objections being raised," Boehner told reporters. "Not a word was raised at the time, not one word."

But Pelosi said leaders were never briefed about the actual use of waterboarding, saying top lawmakers were told only about the existence of legal opinions supporting its rationale.

"We were not -- I repeat -- were not told that waterboarding or any of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used. What they did tell us is that they had . . . the Office of Legal Counsel opinions [and] that they could be used, but not that they would," she said.

In late 2002, Pelosi was the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, so she was part of the "Gang of Four" briefings given to the top members of the intelligence panels in the House and Senate. Pelosi continued receiving highly classified briefings when she became Democratic leader in 2003, as it is customary to brief the top Democrat and Republican from the House and Senate.

The select few lawmakers who were briefed about the handling of detainees were then forbidden from discussing with their colleagues what they had learned, she said.

"They don't come in to consult," Pelosi said of administration officials. "They come in to notify. They come in to notify. And you can't -- you can't change what they're doing unless you can act as a committee or as a class. You can't change what they're doing."

New York makes students pay for budget crisis

New York makes students pay for budget crisis

By A. Wood

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New York State’s decision to impose a minimal income tax increase on the state’s biggest earners to deal with a widening budget deficit unleashed a public furor. The media has given lavish coverage to protests against the misnamed “millionaire’s tax” (it created no separate bracket for those making a million dollars or more a year) by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump, who have threatened to leave the state rather than pay 2 percent more.

Little or no attention, however, has been paid to a far more onerous and underhanded tax that has been imposed on hundreds of thousands of people who are far less able to pay it: the state’s public university students.

Students of the City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY) are being forced to pay a $620 per year tuition increase. The working class, middle class and immigrant students who attend the public universities in New York City and across the state have been able to do so, in no small part, because they have been offered among the lowest cost university educations available. For over 100 years, through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and up until 1976, the City University system provided a cost free college education.

But now CUNY and SUNY students are being forced to pay directly out of their pockets to make up for the estimated $17.7 billion dollar New York state budget deficit caused by Wall Street’s crisis.

The cost for a full time student at a CUNY four-year college is $4,000 a year. At the six CUNY community colleges the cost is $2,800 a year, which is reported to be at the high end of the community college tuition scale. Costs are fractionally higher in the SUNY system.

The percentage cost increase being imposed is 15.5 percent for the senior college students and an outrageous 22.2 percent for community college students—those who can least afford to pay more.

As the CUNY Web site reports, “Thirty-eight percent of first-time freshmen are born outside of the US mainland and 68 percent attended New York City public high schools. Forty-five percent of CUNY undergraduates work more than 20 hours a week and 62 percent attend school full-time, while almost a quarter support children.”

It continues: “Of full-time undergraduate CUNY degree students, 70 percent receive financial aid. Each year, 110,000 CUNY students receive federal Pell grants, state TAP grants, and federal work-study grants.”

At a meeting held on March 27 at Queens College (CUNY) to protest the tuition hikes, it was reported that school statistics showed that “more than 60 percent of Queens College and Queensborough Community College students come from households that earn less than $40,000 per year.”

What makes the tuition hike even more cruel and inequitable is that 90 percent of the increase is going not to cover CUNY’s and SUNY’s budgets, but rather is being diverted into the state’s general fund to plug the deficit hole. This amounts to levying an indirect tax, which, in straight percentage terms—not to mention its impact on living standards—is far more draconian than anything being asked of the state’s millionaires and billionaires.

SUNY is the largest university system in the US with about 440,000 enrolled students. CUNY is the third largest university system in the country with more than 243,000 students enrolled for degree credit. A $620 per year payment for every enrolled CUNY and SUNY student would translate into over $420 million dollars, with more than $380 million of that money doing nothing to fund education, but rather being used to offset the crisis created by the financial meltdown.

The way in which the Democratic-led state government is pulling this off is as cynical and crooked as the speculative deals on Wall Street that gave rise to the crisis. The budget allows the universities to keep the money from the tuition hikes, but then cuts allocations for the universities from the state’s general fund by an amount equal to 90 percent of the total tuition increase in the first year and 80 percent in the second.

Calling the tuition hikes a tax, because almost none of it goes for students’ education, Stony Brook University (SUNY) President Shirley Strum Kenny wrote in an April 11 New York Daily News opinion piece that this tax “will only apply to those attending New York’s public campuses—and those are often the students with the least money, the ones who need jobs—sometimes full-time jobs to pay their bills.” Kenny concludes her column by stating, “This tax is illogical, unfair, indefensible and needs to be revoked.”

The Stony Brook president went on to assert that the state budget has cut $118 million from SUNY funding; although Governor Paterson’s budget office claims a total funding increase of 2.7 percent for SUNY and CUNY. She writes, “...the state investment keeps being reduced. A total of $241 million or 16 percent of the state allocation was removed from the SUNY budget for Fiscal Year 2008-2009. Now another $118 million decrease has been approved for 2009-2010.”

There is also a dispute over whether state financial aid to students has been cut. The CUNY preliminary analysis declares the 2009-2010 state budget does not cut students’ financial aid. But students from the SUNY Albany campus who spoke to the WSWS gave a different account, indicating that aid is being slashed. This may stem from budget cuts—$96 million from SUNY and $51 million from CUNY—enacted in a special legislative session called by Governor David Paterson and put into effect in the spring semester this year. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg doubled the CUNY system’s budget cuts by taking away city funds.

At SUNY Albany, the first university created in the state system and its statewide administrative headquarters, the World Socialist Web Site spoke to students about the tuition hikes and budget cuts that have provoked anger throughout the state.

BrittanyBrittany Cross

Brittany Cross told the WSWS, “When I found out I was outraged because I pay for my own tuition costs. My parents financially can’t pay for it. So I have to use financial aid as well as student loans. And, because of the tuition hike that means I’ll have to take out greater loans. Because, not only is there a tuition hike but there’s also a decrease in funding for students as well in the state.

“When I went to the financial aid office, they said because of the economic crisis that TAP (Tuition Assistance Plan) funding has been cut. I don’t know who cut it or when, but I just know it’s been cut by whoever is in charge of that. I noticed that I had a larger amount of loans compared to funding from the state so I went to financial aid and inquired about it and that’s what they explained. It was a considerable amount that I’m going to have to pay back in loans.

“I think there’s a cut in funding also because the biggest percentage of the increase we are paying is going toward the state deficit and not toward tuition on campus. It’s not going toward my housing. It’s not going toward paying for my classes, not going toward my food, or anything that’s going to benefit me. So, I’m going to have to pay all of that money back after I graduate. And, it’s going toward the state deficit which I don’t feel like I should be responsible for paying back.”

KevinKevin Bretscher

Kevin Bretscher is studying for his master’s degree in public administration at SUNY Albany. He said: “I am in the Student Senate and know that 90 percent of the tuition increase this year and 80 percent next year is going to other state agencies, not SUNY, since the entire state is in a crisis. The government sees students as vulnerable. Students are not organized. The student assembly from 60 SUNY campuses did lobby the state legislature and organized a SUNY-wide protest but it was ineffective.

“All school is for is to get you to work. And college isn't good enough. You even need to go to graduate school.

“People have so much faith in Obama. I voted for him but I think the stimulus is irresponsible. They are not trying to reform the system as much as keep it alive. How much change is it to be supporting the banks?”

ChrisChris Denstsen

Chris Denstsen is a SUNY Albany senior majoring in political science. He said, “I am in the Educational Opportunity Program. The program helps disadvantaged students get into college and then helps them with tuition, books and tutoring to get them through. It has had cuts. I see less and less spots for freshmen trying to get in. There are about 100 in the program at SUNY Albany. Personally I am not for the bailing out of the banks. If the banks are getting assistance, why aren't the people getting assistance for health care, mass transit, and the staples people need to live on? At the very minimum, we should move toward a universal education and health care system."

In New York City, Jason King, a junior at City College of New York (CUNY), said, “I don’t believe in a system that requires you to pay so much for education, which is a necessity like air. It sets up a cycle of destruction. The more you have to pay, the more you have to do something to pay this off, and the less you can study. I think it is very bad that they have raised our tuition. I don’t believe in the Democrats because they are the same as the Republicans. I don’t believe in a system that depends on constant profiteering. And Wall Street profiteering has been based on imaginary money. Now we have to pay it off.”

As watchdog warns of bailout fraud Obama meets with bank, credit card executives

As watchdog warns of bailout fraud Obama meets with bank, credit card executives

By Barry Grey

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President Barack Obama met Thursday at the White House with executives of major banks and credit card companies amidst growing public anger over sudden increases in interest rates and fees, in many cases by companies that have received billions of dollars in taxpayer bailout money.

Obama, who pledged during his presidential campaign to curb abuses by credit card firms, was silent on the issue until last week, when media reports emerged detailing how firms were doubling and tripling their charges to customers, including those with good credit who had remained current on their payments.

These reports coincide with others showing that banks that have received cash, cheap loans and debt guarantees from the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and other government programs are ramping up home foreclosures while continuing to reduce lending. First the Bush and now the Obama administration have defended the transfer of public funds to Wall Street as the only means of ending the credit crunch and resulting recession.

Trillions have been pumped into the banks, but the recession has deepened, unemployment has soared and millions of people have been thrown into poverty and homelessness. The banks have used the bailout money to bolster their balance sheets and generate profits by speculating on turbulent financial markets and by finding ways to cash in on the collapse in home prices. They have intensified their assault on the working class, slashing hundreds of thousands of jobs, driving people out of their homes and raising the cost of credit upon which most Americans depend to pay their bills.

They adamantly oppose even the most modest restrictions on their activities, including certain limits on executive compensation, enhanced power of bankruptcy courts to alter mortgage terms for distressed homeowners, and laws that would restrict their ability to arbitrarily increase charges on credit card holders.

Obama’s White House meeting was typical of his public relations efforts to placate public opposition while taking no serious measures to rein in the banks. Participants, besides Obama and his top economic aides, included executives from Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, US Bancorp, Visa, Mastercard, Capitol One Financial, American Express, Discover Financial Services and several other firms. Also present was the president of the American Bankers Association, which is lobbying against congressional bills that would curb abuses by credit card issuers.

Following the closed-door meeting, Obama told reporters, “We’re confident we can arrive at something that is commonsensical.” Seeking to reassure the bankers, he added, “We want to preserve the credit card market but we also want to do so in a way that eliminates some of the abuses and some of the problems that a lot of people are familiar with.” He did not say which abuses would be allowed to continue.

One indication of the seriousness of the administration’s effort was provided by Lawrence Summers, the director of the White House’s National Economic Council. According to reporters, he dozed off during Obama’s brief remarks to the press.

Executives leaving the meeting said it was “constructive.” They are confident that they will succeed in blocking passage of a bill, dubbed the “Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights,” that is moving through Congress. On Wednesday the bill was approved by the House Financial Services Committee, but a Senate version is opposed by Republicans on a party-line basis and by some Democrats, all but insuring its defeat.

The banks and credit card companies maintain that legislation is not necessary since the Federal Reserve has already announced restrictions on interest charges and fees. However, those regulations are not slated to take effect until July of 2010, giving the banks ample time to ramp up charges in advance of the new rules.

Earlier on Thursday, the special inspector general appointed to monitor the TARP program testified before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and indicated that the bailout program is rife with conflicts of interest and fraud.

Neil Barofsky, a former prosecutor, told the panel that he had already initiated 20 criminal investigations into securities fraud, insider trading, collusion, price-fixing, money laundering and other illegal activities in relation to the government bailout. He suggested that there would be many more probes.

On Monday, Barofsky released a 250-page report to Congress on the TARP program in which he decried the refusal of the Treasury Department, despite his repeated urgings, to require firms that receive taxpayer handouts to report on how they are using the government money. He noted that the Obama administration has signed off on another $30 billion for the insurance giant American International Group (AIG), which had already received some $150 billion, without any requirement that the company explain what it has done with its bailout money.

The TARP program, he wrote, which began as a $700 billion plan to purchase toxic assets from the banks, has morphed into twelve separate programs involving more than $3 trillion in government cash, loans and loan guarantees—an amount roughly equal to the annual federal budget.

In his report and in his congressional testimony, Barofsky focused on the new bailout program detailed on March 24 by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. He warned that the “Public-Private Investment Program” (PPIP), under which Wall Street investment firms will be given low-cost government loans and guarantees against losses to purchase toxic assets from the banks at inflated prices, was “inherently vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.”

He said that the program, which is to be run by the private firms, with between two-thirds and 92.5 percent of the funding provided by the government, had “significant issues relating to conflicts of interest facing fund managers, collusion between participants, and vulnerabilities to money laundering.” He urged that the program not go forward without the addition of serious safeguards against fraud.

In his testimony before the Joint Economic Committee, Barofsky said that the program was designed so as to allow the private fund managers to set the price for the securities purchased from the banks. “This is a lot of economic power given to a small number of fund managers,” he said. He pointed out that fund managers would likely be buying the same mortgage-backed securities they had in other accounts, giving them an incentive to pay inflated prices and thereby increase the value of their previous investments, which they could subsequently unload at a huge profit.

“The banks will also make a huge profit,” he said. “And when the securities go back to their real market price, the taxpayer will pay the loss.”

He also warned that the incorporation of the Federal Reserve’s Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) into the Public-Private Investment Program added another level of potential fraud. Investment firms running Public-Private funds would be able to borrow additional money under the TALF program.

That program, using $80 billion in TARP funds to leverage $1 trillion in Fed loans, was initially designed to subsidize the issuing of new securities backed by consumer loans. Now it is to be used to subsidize the purchase of existing toxic asset-backed securities on the banks’ books.

He decried the fact that the Federal Reserve was relying on credit rating agencies to rate the toxic assets to be purchased under TALF and the PPIP, noting that the same agencies had contributed to the financial collapse by giving dubious mortgage-backed securities their highest rating.

In effect, he suggested, the program would enable the banks to offload the worst of their bad debts, generating massive profits for Wall Street and huge taxpayer losses.

Asked at the hearing whether there were any provisions in the TARP bill passed last October that required banks to report on their use of bailout money, he said, “No.” Without fundamental changes in the structure and management of the bailout programs, he said, there would be “potentially catastrophic taxpayer losses.”

Barofsky was asked about a report published that morning by the Wall Street Journal citing testimony by Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson pressured him to conceal the dire financial position of Merrill Lynch last September, when the Bush administration engineered the takeover of the investment bank by Bank of America. Merrill Lynch lost more than $15 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008, liabilities that led to a government bailout of Bank of America last December.

Barofsky said that his office was investigating the Bank of America takeover of Merrill. He listed six audits he was conducting, including, besides the Bank of America deal, the use of bailout funds, compliance with executive compensation limits, external influences, AIG executive bonuses, and AIG counterparty payments.

The latter concerns the fact that AIG has used its government bailout funds to pay off banks and other firms that had entered into credit default swaps with the insurance giant at 100 percent of the face value of the deals, rather than forcing its counterparties to accept reduced payments.

One such deal that is ripe for criminal investigation involves Goldman Sachs, former Treasury Secretary Paulson and the current CEO of AIG, Edward Liddy. It has emerged that Paulson, who was CEO of Goldman before becoming treasury secretary under Bush, designed the AIG rescue so as to allow AIG to funnel $13 billion in bailout money to his former bank. He picked Liddy, a former board member of Goldman, to become the new CEO of AIG. Liddy, meanwhile, retains an investment of more than $3 million in Goldman Sachs.

Obama’s treasury secretary, Geithner, was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York at the time and played a critical role in designing and implementing the TARP program and the bailout of AIG. That neither he, nor Obama, nor the Democratic-controlled Congress has any intention of implementing the changes proposed by Barofsky was underscored by Geithner’s testimony Tuesday before the Congressional Oversight Committee for TARP.

Although Geithner’s appearance occurred the day after Barofsky released his report to Congress and the day it was released to the public, none of the committee members raised it. Geithner, for his part, announced that the “vast majority” of banks were more than adequately capitalized, stressed that banks shown to need more capital by government “stress tests” would have many options for raising money, in addition to government purchases of their stock, and warned Congress against placing new requirements on bailed out firms.

His testimony was taken as a pledge that the Obama administration would continue to run interference for Wall Street and shield the wealth of the financial elite. It sparked a 127.8 point rise in the Dow, with bank stocks recording double-digit gains for the day.