SWAT teams claim to be private mercenaries, immune to open records laws


The ACLU reports [PDF] that when it made Freedom of Information requests for Massachusetts SWAT team records, the SWATs claimed that because they were organized as "law enforcement councils" (jointly owned by many police departments, with additional federal funding) that they were not government agencies at all, but rather private corporations, and not subject to open records laws.

SWATs are the white-hot center of the increasingly brutal and militarized response of US police forces, which have outfitted themselves with ex-Afghanistan/Iraq military materiel and have deployed it in an escalating violent series of attacks, largely as part of the war on drugs. As Radley Balko writes in the Washington Post, the SWATs' claim to be private companies doesn't pass the giggle test: they are funded by the government, pay government employees, and do the government's business.

The argument boils down to this: we are not the police, we are private mercenaries armed with automatic weapons and military-grade vehicles and equipment, and when we attack and kill in the streets of American cities, we do so as private soldiers who happen to be funded by the police departments' budgets.

The ACLU is suing the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council to challenge this ruse, but even if they win, this should be setting off alarm bells for anyone who believes in good government and responsible policing. The cornerstone of democratic legitimacy is a duty to the public, with all the transparency and respect that implies. When police forces up and down the state structure themselves to create and exploit a loophole that lets them obscure the details of their most violent, most spectacular screw-ups -- which generally result in gruesome injuries and deaths to innocent members of the public -- there is no way they can claim to be acting in the public interest.

The fact that the city governments that oversee these departments and the federal agencies that fund the LECs have been complicit in this suggests that this isn't a matter of police overreach, but rather is a policy that goes literally all the way to the top of the policing regulatory structure in America.

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Lurking inside Obama's secret drone law: another secret drone law


Remember the secret memo explaining the legal justification for assassinating Americans with drones that the ACLU forced the Obama administration to release? Turns out that that memo relies on another secret memo that the Obama administration is also relying on. Obama is a no-fooling Constitutional scholar; you'd think that he'd be wise to the idea that secret law is not law at all.

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How accounting forced transparency on the aristocracy and changed the world


In the 16th century, celebrated Dutch painters did a brisk trade in heroic portraits of accountants and their ledgers. That's because accounting transformed the lowlands, literally bringing accountability to the aristocracy by forcing them to keep track of, and report on, their wealth. As Jacob Soll (author of The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations) writes in the Boston Globe, from the 14th century invention of double-entry bookkeeping until the 19th century -- when accounting became a separate profession instead of something that every educated person was expected to practice -- accountancy upended the social order, elevating financial transparency to a primary virtue.

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Greenhouse: browser plugin that automatically annotates politicians' names with their funders

Greenhouse is a browser plugin created by Nicholas Rubin, a 16-year-old programmer. It seeks out the names of elected US officials on any web-page you load in your browser and adds a pop-up link to their names listing the major donors to their campaigns. It uses 2012 election-cycle data drawn from Opensecrets's repository.

I've long suggested something like this as a way of improving political coverage. Indeed, you could imagine it going both ways -- any time the name of a company or individual who had made some big campaign contributions shows up in a webpage, you get a list of their political beneficiaries. Ideally, this would be an open framework to which data from any political race could be added.

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Every congresscritter now has an email address, thanks to Sunlight and EFF


Many congresscritters don't have public email addresses -- instead, they have hard-to-locate webforms that slow down activist email campaigns and make it harder for constituents to get in touch. EFF and the Sunlight Foundation has fixed this, giving every member of Congress her or his own email address -- an address that you can send to that will be automatically forwarded through the appropriate webform.

Sunlight has some spam-checking to stop this from being abused, and gathers some of the other information the forms collect so that they can be fully populated by the scripts. Once you're setup in the system, you can email "myreps@opencongress.org" and your message will automatically be forwarded on to you senators and house reps.

88% of Congressional staffers say that their bosses' decisions are affected by constituent email. The data and scripts are up on Github for you to build on.

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After federal document-snatch, ACLU case over Florida cops' phone surveillance collapses

After US marshalls raided a Florida police department to seize documents about to be revealed in an ACLU case over "stingray" mobile phone surveillance, we knew that the case was endangered. Now the worst has happened: state circuit court judge Charles Williams has thrown out the case because he says his court has no jurisdiction over federal agents, so he can't order the critical documents to be returned, so there's no case.

The feds have offered a limited, sealed disclosure to the Florida court, and the ACLU has vowed to fight to unseal them and carry on with the case.

At issue is the widespread police use of "stingray" devices that spoof mobile phones, tricking them into revealing information about their owners' movements, communications, associations, and identity.

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IRS won't fix database of nonprofits, so it goes dark


Rogue archivist Carl Malamud writes, "Due to inaction by the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Congress, Public.Resource.Org has been forced to terminate access to 7,634,050 filings of nonprofit organizations. The problem is that we have been fixing the database, providing better access mechanisms and finding and redacting huge numbers of Social Security Numbers. Our peers such as GuideStar are also fixing their copies of the database."

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Bot alerts you every time the Supreme Court silently alters its rulings


As the New York Times recently reported, the Supreme Court has a habit of silently altering its rulings on its websites. Now, the @SCOTUS_servo feed will alert you when this happens, with links to the diffs and interpretation by David Zvenyach, general counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia.

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US official backs Marines' request to classify photos of forces urinating on Taliban corpses

A still from a 2011 video posted online that showed Marines urinating on dead bodies. [Reuters]


A still from a 2011 video posted online that showed Marines urinating on dead bodies. [Reuters]

"In an apparent expansion of the government’s secrecy powers, the top official in charge of the classification system has decided that it was legitimate for the Marines to classify photographs that showed American forces posing with corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan," reports the NYT's Charlie Savage.

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US Marshals raid Florida cops to prevent release of records of "stingray" surveillance


US Marshals swept into the offices of police in Sarasota, Florida to whisk away records related to operation of "stingray" surveillance tools that the ACLU had requested. The records detailed the farcically low standard for judicial permission to use a stingray (which captures information about the movements, communications and identities of all the people using mobile phones in range of them), and is part of a wider inquiry to their use without a warrant at all -- at least 200 Florida stingray deployments were undertaken without judicial oversight because the police had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the device's manufacturer and they decided that this meant they didn't have to get warrants anymore.

The ACLU has seen a lot of shenanigans in respect of its campaign to document the use and abuse of stingrays, but this is a cake-taker: "We’ve seen our fair share of federal government attempts to keep records about stingrays secret, but we’ve never seen an actual physical raid on state records in order to conceal them from public view."

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Snowden, one year after: Now we know the NSA's secrets

Josh from the ACLU writes, "To mark this Thursday's one-year anniversary of the first NSA revelation from Edward Snowden, we've made a very cool video showing what's happened so far (and yes that is Snowden's voice at the end). You've not seen an NSA video like this before. We've also created a guide (PDF) to what we think needs to be done for surveillance reform by Congress, the president, the courts, and tech companies."

They Knew Our Secrets. One Year Later, We Know Theirs.

NSA can't find any emails from Snowden, then it can (convenient, no?)

Yesterday, the NSA released an email from Edward Snowden to his superiors asking about the legality of NSA spying, claiming it was the only evidence they had that he ever tried to go through channels before turning leaker; on its face, this is pretty damning. But there's one problem: six months ago, the NSA claimed that they had no emails of the sort from Snowden, and then this one happened to turn up just in time to counter Snowden's allegations on US TV that he'd tried to blow the whistle from inside. My guess? Someone as canny as Snowden kept copies of all the communiques he made and flags he raised, and will be shortly making the NSA look like pathetic liars (again).

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Crowdfunding for Cryptome, oldest radical secrets-leaking site online

nya-kick.largeWithout Cryptome.org, there would have been no Wikileaks, though the two organizations' history and methods of operation couldn't be more different. I'm pretty sure it's the oldest continuously-running website devoted to the public exposure of secret documents for the public good, and has weathered constant attack and intimidation by entities who would rather that websites like Cryptome not exist.

The website run by John Young and Deborah Natsios has a kickstarter campaign, and it's worth considering kicking in if radical transparency is something you support.

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Anti-Net Neutrality Congresscritters made serious bank from the cable companies


The Congressmen who sent letters to the FCC condemning Net Neutrality received 2.3 times more campaign contributions from the cable industry than average. The analysis, conducted with Maplight's Congressional transparency tools, shows that Dems are cheaper to bribe than Republicans (GOP members received 5x the Congressional average from Big Cable; Dems only 1.2x) and shows what a chairmanship of a powerful committee is worth: Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who chairs the FCC-overseeing Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, got $109,250 (the average congressscritter got $11,651).

29 Congresscritters own stock in Comcast, and Comcast is the 25th most-held stock in Congress.

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Obama administration proves why we need someone to leak CIA Torture Report

image: Reuters


image: Reuters

It’s now been over a month since the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to force the Obama administration to declassify parts of the Committee’s landmark report on CIA torture, and the public still has not seen a word of the 6,000 page investigation.

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