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Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and lawyer who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Harvard Law and Policy Review, Politico, PBS MediaShift and Salon. Trevor formerly worked as an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Before that, he helped the longtime General Counsel of The New York Times, James Goodale, write a book on the Pentagon Papers and the First Amendment. In 2013, he received the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award for journalism.

Congress passes USA Freedom Act, the NSA 'reform' bill. What does it mean for your privacy?

Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower whose actions led to calls to reform the agency's post-9/11 domestic surveillance activities.


Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower whose actions led to calls to reform the agency's post-9/11 domestic surveillance activities.

Today the Senate passed a version of the USA Freedom Act, a bill touted by its authors as surveillance reform that will end the NSA’s mass, suspicionless collection of Americans’ personal data. Given that parts of the Patriot Act expired on June 1st, and that the government is pretending the expiration is a “crisis” rather than an opportunity, President Obama is expected to sign the bill as soon as possible.

While the bill has many significant flaws, the USA Freedom Act vote is also historic: it’s the first time since the 1970s that Congress has indicated its intention to restrict the vast powers of intelligence agencies like the NSA, rather than exponentially expand them. It also shows the power that investigative journalism and brave whistleblowing can have on even the most entrenched government interests. Two years ago, debating these modest changes would’ve been unthinkable, and it is absolutely a vindication for Edward Snowden.

Unfortunately, the bill is also woefully inadequate and largely symbolic, and Congress would’ve been better off letting Section 215 of the Patriot Act expire permanently. The USA Freedom Act supposedly bans bulk collection of phone records or any other private records, and we certainly hope it actually does. But its provisions are vague and confusing, leading many legal experts to believe they could be re-interpreted in secret—by NSA lawyers with a history of warping the common definitions of ordinary words beyond recognition—and could lead the FISA court to continue to allow the NSA to collect large quantities of Americans’ data in secret. (The administration will shamefully now re-start the phone program that expired on Monday for six months, as allowed under the new law's "transition" period.)

The ultra-secret FISA court, a Kafkaesque nightmare for civil liberties, also gets to keep many of its worst features, with just minor changes around the edges. Such an anathema to democracy should be dismantled entirely.

The USA Freedom Act also does not touch on two of the NSA’s most powerful and controversial tools: the FISA Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333, which have been used to scan untold billions of emails coming in and out of the United States, and give the agency free rein to spy on 95% of the world’s population with virtually no restrictions.

And perhaps most shamefully, given that Congress never would’ve even had this debate without Edward Snowden, the bill does nothing for whistleblowers who can be prosecuted as spies under the Espionage Act for speaking to journalists and telling the American public the truth.

As Snowden himself said two weeks ago, we hope the USA Freedom Act is just the beginning of Congress’ reform of the NSA, and not the end. And we are reminded that it took more than five years for the Church Committee’s intelligence reforms to make their way through Congress in the 1970s.

It’s also important to remember that given the dysfunction in Congress on all subjects, plus the grip the intelligence agencies have over the legislative committees that supposedly oversee them, new laws constraining the NSA were only ever going to be one part of a much larger picture. Far more substantive changes have happened on the individual level, as well as at many of the nation’s largest tech companies, and in the courts.

Encryption is now a legitimate bulwark against mass surveillance by any government. Open-source and free software projects are both getting easier to use for ordinary users and are proliferating in numbers. Once collaborators with the NSA, big tech companies have also taken a far more adversarial position since their secret capitulations were exposed. These companies have at least partially responded to demand from citizens to protect their communications with encryption that can prevent intelligence agencies from spying on innocent people.

While companies like Apple have made great strides by encrypting iPhones by default, a lot more needs to be done to make sure end-to-end encryption—whether we are emailing, texting, or calling each other—becomes the norm in 21st century society. Continued pressure from the public will get us there.

Edward Snowden’s leaks have also opened the door to more court challenges. For years the government was able to hide behind procedural maneuvers, like invoking standing or the state secrets privilege, to prevent judges from ruling on the constitutionality of the programs. As the Second Circuit’s landmark opinion ruling NSA mass surveillance of Americans illegal, this tactic is slowly crumbling. While it remains an uphill climb for anyone to challenge the government’s actions, whistleblowers like Snowden and others are breaking down that wall.

We hope that all of these actions--in Congress, in the courts, and from the public—-will continue to become stronger and bring permanent reform in the months and years to come.


Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and lawyer who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Harvard Law and Policy Review, Politico, PBS MediaShift and Salon. Trevor formerly worked as an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Before that, he helped the longtime General Counsel of The New York Times, James Goodale, write a book on the Pentagon Papers and the First Amendment. In 2013, he received the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award for journalism.

Justice Department contradicts Attorney General Loretta Lynch's claims about Patriot Act

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was just interviewed by CBS News, fearmongering about losing Section 215 of the Patriot Act if Congress fails to re-authorize it. Only problem for her is the DoJ's own IG just released a report today that directly contradicts what she said. Read the rest

US officials leak information about the ISIS raid that’s more sensitive than anything Snowden ever leaked

Source: Institute for the Study of War By The New York Times.


Source: Institute for the Study of War
By The New York Times.

Over the weekend, the US government announced that special forces soldiers entered Syria to conduct a raid that killed an alleged leader of ISIS, Abu Sayyaf. In the process, anonymous US officials leaked classified information to the New York Times that’s much more sensitive than anything Edward Snowden ever revealed, and it serves as a prime example of the government’s hypocrisy when it comes to disclosures of secret information.

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Petraeus receives no jail time for leaking. Whistleblowers face decades in jail.

At the same time as David Petraeus got off with probation and a fine, the Justice Department has been pushing for extreme jail time for other leakers who talk to journalists—often over leaks of far less sensitive material.Read the rest

US Congress to vote on 'cybersecurity' bills that are basically surveillance bills in disguise

Congress is expected to vote on two 'cybersecurity' bills sometime in the next week that are essentially surveillance bills in disguise. Trevor Timm writes in this editorial, cross-posted on the Freedom of the Press blog, about how they affect journalists and whistleblowers.Read the rest

New version of SecureDrop, open-source whistleblower submission system originally created by Aaron Swartz

secure_drop_slideshowimg

At Freedom of the Press Foundation, we’re excited to announce the release of a brand new version of SecureDrop, our open source whistleblower system which media organizations can use to communicate and receive documents from sources.

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The James Risen case and Eric Holder's tarnished press freedom legacy

Eric Holder. Photo: Reuters


Eric Holder. Photo: Reuters

Attorney General Holder raised some eyebrows yesterday when answering a question about his Justice Department’s notorious crackdown on leaks, and by extension the press, most notably saying this about its notorious pursuit of New York Times reporter James Risen, while claiming the DOJ did nothing wrong:

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Barrett Brown’s sentence is unjust, but it may become the norm for journalists

Jailed, in part, because he shared a link to a stolen document that he did not steal, and despite the fact that this is not a crime.Read the rest

British spy agency intercepted emails of journalists, considers them 'threats' alongside terrorists and hackers

Edward Snowden.


Edward Snowden.

Newly disclosed documents from Edward Snowden, revealed by the Guardian, show that the British spy agency (and close NSA partner) GCHQ intercepted emails from many of the US and UK’s most well-known news organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, Le Monde, the Sun, and NBC.

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If Petraeus is charged over leaks, feds may use same law they're going after Snowden with

David Petraeus, L, used a pseudonymous Gmail account to sext biographer/lover Paula Broadwell, R. They were outed in part by Gmail metadata.

In a surprising development, the New York Times reported late Friday that the FBI and Justice Department have recommended felony charges against ex-CIA director David Petraeus for leaking classified information to his former biographer and mistress Paula Broadwell. While the Times does not specify, the most likely law prosecutors would charge Petraeus under is the same as Edward Snowden and many other leakers: the 1917 Espionage Act.

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Obama’s Justice Department secretly helped kill FOIA transparency bill

U.S. President Barack Obama looks toward Attorney General Eric Holder. Justice Department investigators have engaged in aggressive tactics against journalists in recent months. [Reuters]


U.S. President Barack Obama looks toward Attorney General Eric Holder. Justice Department investigators have engaged in aggressive tactics against journalists in recent months. [Reuters]

We’ve long known the Justice Department’s stance on transparency has been hypocritical and disingenuous. But they’ve really outdone themselves this time.

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Watch: 2 years before Snowden, Barrett Brown on why reporters should be covering intel contractors

Today, a judge in Dallas will decide the fate of journalist Barrett Brown, who is being sentenced in a case that has been fraught with controversy and deplorable conduct by the Justice Department from its beginning in 2013. Brown, who author Barry Eisler profiled earlier today, was one of the very few reporters covering intelligence contractors and their role in mass surveillance of citizens around the world for years before we ever heard the name Edward Snowden.

Director Brian Knappenberger, whose film The Internet's Own Boy was just short-listed for an Oscar, has released to us this previously unpublished outtake interview of Brown from his previous film We Are Legion. Brown's description of these shadowy contractors and the necessity of journalists to uncover their secrets is uncanny, given the interview was conducted almost two years before the first NSA leaks from Snowden. Watch Knappenberger's clip above.

Feds given deadline to subpoena NYT reporter over CIA leak

Reporter James Risen of the New York Times and author of the book, "State of War" speaks during a taping of "Meet the Press" at NBC studios January 8, 2006 in Washington, DC.  Image: NBC


Reporter James Risen of the New York Times and author of the book, "State of War" speaks during a taping of "Meet the Press" at NBC studios January 8, 2006 in Washington, DC. Image: NBC

Now is not exactly the best time for Obama's Justice Department to be subpoenaing one of the nation's best journalists for reporting on a spectacularly botched CIA operation, but that's the decision Attorney General Eric Holder faces this week.

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New Zealand police raided home of reporter working on Snowden documents. Here's how you can support his defense.

Photo via The Intercept


Photo via The Intercept

On October 6th, New Zealand police raided the house of one of the country’s best independent investigative journalists, Nicky Hager, seizing many of his family’s belongings and his reporting equipment—all in the search for one of his sources. This is a flagrant violation of basic press freedom rights, and today we are announcing a campaign to assist Hager in raising money for his legal defense.

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Cognitive Dissonance about the FBI and NSA at 60 Minutes

FBI Director James Comey speaks with Scott Pelley.


FBI Director James Comey speaks with Scott Pelley.

60 Minutes, which has been harshly criticized for running puff pieces for the NSA and FBI recently, is at it again.

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Eric Holder was the worst Attorney General for the press in a generation. We deserve better.

eric_holder

Attorney General Eric Holder announced he would resign yesterday, after serving as the nation’s top law enforcement official since President Obama came into office in 2009. Holder will leave behind a complex and hotly debated legacy at the Justice Department on many issues, but one thing is clear: he was the worst Attorney General on press freedom issues in a generation, possibly since Richard Nixon’s John Mitchell pioneered the subpoenaing of reporters and attempted to censor the Pentagon Papers.

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When can FBI use National Security letters to go after reporters? Sorry, that's classified.

 U.S. President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have been vigorous in combating leaks. KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS


U.S. President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have been vigorous in combating leaks. KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

Two weeks ago, the DOJ Inspector General released a report on the FBI’s use of National Security Letters (NSLs)—-the controversial (and unconstitutional) surveillance instruments used to gather personal information of Americans without any prior oversight from a judge. In a little-noticed passage buried in the report, the IG describes how NSLs have been used on journalists in the past, and indicates that the FBI can currently circumvent the Justice Department’s media guidelines to do so in the future.

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