a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Civil Liberties

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th September 2010

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Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th February 2009

(… a.k.a. Get FISA Right)

Where to pitch in



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Risen and Lichtblau vs. Keller vs. Bush

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th January 2009

On the occasion of Mark Felt’s (a.k.a. “Deep Throat” of Watergate) recent death, the Washington Post’s former executive editor Leonard Downie pondered whether breaking another Watergate story “could happen again,” and confidently concluded — what with prepaid cell phones, bloggers, whistleblower protection laws and all — that it could, and faster than ever: “Nixon was re-elected five months after the burglary in 1972, and Watergate was not much of an issue during the campaign. That would not happen today.”

But it did.

The NSA warrantless surveillance story —  lawbreaking arguably even more serious than Watergate, and also directly at presidential command — was ready to go before the 2004 election, but far from becoming the critical election issue it deserved to be, it was delayed for more than a year.

My timeline* of the events related to the NSA warrantless surveillance program and its reporting, and my rereading of a lot of secondary reporting, convince me that while there were many contributing factors to the Times’s failure, the most important ones boiled down to one thing: the news leadership at the  New York Times — executive editor Bill Keller, Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman — put an appeasing, fearful kind of politics ahead of reporting a critically important story.  Their own statements and actions indicate they were more concerned — much more concerned — with adapting to and accommodating events than in reporting them.

“There’s more there”

“There’s more there…. There’s talk of indictments over at the Justice Department. Whatever’s going on, there’s even talk that Ashcroft could be indicted.”
— Eric Lichtblau, “Bush’s Law,” p. 186-187,

Eric Lichtblau
Eric Lichtblau (standing, center), DCDL/firedoglake
“Bush’s Law”book discussion, 5/13/08.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew.

Times reporter Eric Lichtblau says a tipster told him the above sometime in 2004; assuming that the tipster is in fact former Thomas Tamm, a recent Newsweek story by Michael Isikoff (“The Fed Who Blew the Whistle“) pinpoints the timing to “spring 2004” and “eighteen months before the [mid December, 2005] Times report.” While his name has been in the news at least since an FBI raid in 2007, Michael Isikoff’s December Newsweek story  confirmed Tamm was Lichtblau’s whistleblower; with elements of Isikoff’s story matching elements of both James Risen’s and Eric Lichtblau’s accounts.

As the “eighteen months” figure indicates, though, Tamm’s risky whistle-blowing took a long, long, long time to turn into the “Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts” story Lichtblau and Risen published to the Internet on the evening of December 15, 2005.

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Thomas Tamm

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th December 2008

…appears to be the Department of Justice official who blew the whistle to the New York Times about the NSA warrantless surveillance program.  I’ll lead with the important stuff first: (Paypal/credit card – ready)
…. or
Thomas Tamm Legal Defense Fund
Bank of Georgetown
5236 44th Street
Washington, DC 20015

From Michael Isikoff’s Newsweek article (“The Fed Who Blew the Whistle“):

During his childhood, he played under the desk of J. Edgar Hoover, and as an adult, he enjoyed a long and successful career as a prosecutor. Now gray-haired, 56 and fighting a paunch, Tamm prides himself on his personal rectitude. He has what his 23-year-old son, Terry, calls a “passion for justice.” For that reason, there was one secret he says he felt duty-bound to reveal.

In the spring of 2004, Tamm had just finished a yearlong stint at a Justice Department unit handling wiretaps of suspected terrorists and spies—a unit so sensitive that employees are required to put their hands through a biometric scanner to check their fingerprints upon entering. While there, Tamm stumbled upon the existence of a highly classified National Security Agency program that seemed to be eavesdropping on U.S. citizens. The unit had special rules that appeared to be hiding the NSA activities from a panel of federal judges who are required to approve such surveillance. When Tamm started asking questions, his supervisors told him to drop the subject. He says one volunteered that “the program” (as it was commonly called within the office) was “probably illegal.”

While it should be the other way around, it’s Tamm and not his supervisors who faces legal trouble now.  The Justice Department hasn’t filed charges for disclosing classified information — yet.  But Mr. Tamm’s need for legal counsel is still immediate and expensive. You can help him out by joining a Facebook support group, and of course by sending a donation to the address above. It may not be tax-deductible, but you’ll be doing your country and your Constitution a favor.

EDIT, UPDATE 1/21/09: link to added.

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FISA in the Bush years — a timeline

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th December 2008

I happen to really enjoy the “Bourne” movie series.  “Identity,” “Supremacy,” and “Ultimatum” are all action-packed, how-will-he-get-out-of-this-one thrillers packing a nicely subversive message: our country’s national security apparatus can be ruthless, lethal, and beholden to nothing beyond its own purposes. Between waterboarding, secret detention sites, and more, that doesn’t seem too far off any more, of course.

No; it’s when the time came to beat American Spooks Gone Wrong that the newest, hippest spy movie franchise on the block just couldn’t keep pace with reality.  Instead, the screenwriters and producers imagined that just faxing the media some documents would win the day. By the time “Ultimatum” came out in 2007, of course, that was clearly not the case, and when I first watched Joan Allen’s whistleblower dial up an unnamed fax recipient, it was all I could do not to yell “My god, no — not the New York Times!” in the theater where I was watching.   In the movie, the supposedly inevitable publication, national scandal, congressional hearings, and perp walks for the bad guys all seemed and seem more fantastical and unrealistic than any number of Bourne-on-five fight scenes could.

The sickening torture and abuse revelations of the Bush years, and the lies that led to a hideously costly war are low standards against which all other scandals pale.  In a certain cold perspective, though, these are (for the most part) “merely” stories about what we are willing to do to other people, far away and out of sight.

By contrast, the NSA warrantless surveillance story is an instructive test case about what we’re willing to do to our very own democracy, rule of law,  and civil liberties when we feel threatened.  Actions in defiance of settled law; a “dare you to mention it” coverup; a newspaper’s decision not to publish a story its reporters had painstakingly assembled; an election “accountability moment” that wasn’t; a legislative branch by turns unwilling, unable, or unwilling and unable to safeguard its prerogatives and the liberties of its people, a judiciary reduced to a spectator’s role; a key campaign pledge abandoned, and over it all, a persistent fog of lies from president to editor to Congress to intelligence agency.  And under it all, a public by turns confused about and uninterested in which of its seemingly esoteric “rights” were being frittered away.

I’ve perhaps telegraphed my conclusion already, but here it is more plainly: while there are a few heroes in the story, this is a test case that our country has failed so far, often in spectacular, bipartisan fashion.

Ever since I saw Lichtblau and Risen — the New York Times reporters who broke the story in December 2005 — speaking to a local group about Lichtblau’s excellent book “Bush’s Law,” I’ve grown fascinated (OK, maybe obsessed) with trying to figure out just what happened, just how badly we failed at preserving the rights our country was supposed to be designed to protect, and just how hard it will be to ever succeed in the country we actually have.

As my resource and yours, I’ve now compiled a fairly detailed timeline in spreadsheet form: “FISA in the Bush years: a timeline of abuses and failures by the executive branch, the media, and Congress.” The timeline juxtaposes information from multiple sources, and links to supporting online documents; whenever possible, I’ve used exact dates, but I’ve estimated the dates and sequencing of many of the catalogued events (such dates are italicized in the spreadsheet).

This effort has a few things going for it, I think. First, it is now reasonably comprehensive, and may be the best reference work of its kind on the web. Second, it’s selected with a view to some of the narratives described above. Third, it remains a work in progress, with your input warmly welcomed. There’s nothing that will be new to everyone about the timeline, but I think even people who’ve followed the story closely may find it valuable. Mainly, I hope that by reminding ourselves of the whole story, we will also see just how the story worked to our disadvantage so far — and maybe how to change the story in the months and years ahead.

In my next post in this series, I’ll look at the New York Times and how it handled its latter-day Watergate. Grab some popcorn, and come along for the ride.

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To do list

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th July 2008

    • Get FISA RightEmail Your Senators About Their FISA Votecheck
    • Join and participate in the online site Senator, please get FISA rightcheck
    • Add your name to the ACLU’s newspaper ad announcing a lawsuit against the FISA Amendment Act seeking a ruling that it’s unconstitutional — check
    • Forward ACLU ad signature link widely — check
    • Let Barack Obama know how you feel about his vote; sign an open letter to Sen. Obama demanding accountability — check:

      Senator Obama,

      I voted for you in February in Maryland. I nearly voted Edwards, even though he was out of the race, so I was not among your fervent supporters at that time. Still, I thought that you had integrity, that you’d got Iraq right when Clinton, Edwards… and I had got it wrong. So I believed that you would get us out of Iraq, and the more I learned about you, the more I thought you were a serious person who revered the Constitution and would restore the balances between the presidency and Congress, even if I didn’t agree with all of your positions (esp. impeachment of Bush and Cheney, who merit it as no others ever have).
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Finance, favors, and FISA

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th July 2008

An American News Project report via Real News Network

The sums involved may seem paltry — but maybe that just proves how cheap a Congresscritter vote can be: “94 House Democrats who reversed their earlier position and voted in favor of immunity got an average of $8,359 from telecom PACs since 2005.” On the other hand, Senator Jay Rockefeller — who you’d think would be rich enough not to need it — got $51,500 this year alone. Guess it’s true — you don’t get rich by spending money. (Pretty wicked reporting of this in the video, watch for it around 1:40.)

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Lunchtime liveblogging: Mikulski votes against Dodd-Leahy-Feingold amendment to FISA Amendment Act

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th July 2008

Via watching the vote on C-SPAN.

Now is as good a time as any to say I’ll support any reasonably liberal Democrat in the primaries against Senator Mikulski should she run for office again. The opponent should preferably make Mikulski’s votes on FISA a centerpiece of the campaign, but the main thing is that Mikulski must go.

Other Nays include Inouye, McCaskill, Salazar, Hagel (R), Landrieu, Lieberman, Feinstein, Warner.

Ayes include Clinton, Obama. Hm. They’re “Leaders” of “our” “party,” but this is still happening and going down to defeat. Also Menendez, Whitehouse, Boxer in decreasing order of surprise. Also Kerry, Byrd.

The motion has failed 32-66. Roll-call when available. More votes ahead, of course; the Bingaman amendment delaying immunity for 90 days pending investigation of the surveillance is said to have an outside shot of approval.


Specter appears to get it, at least re unexamined prior illegal surveillance. Having joined in mid-debate, I’m honestly not sure which amendment he’s referring to; turns out it’s his own. Jay Rockefeller is worried for the poor widdle telecoms: “it’s not fair” to put the burden of assessing legality on them, too. Sorry, that’s what FISA did. That is, that’s what it used to do, as of the expected vote for this disaster later on today.


Now voting on Specter’s amendment to the FAA: it failed.


Now another two-minute!!!! debate on the Bingaman amendment; Feinstein co-sponsors. He says FISA Amendment Act gets the order wrong. Says opponents and proponents of the FAA itself are cosponsors. Kit Bond gets up and warns Bingaman amendment will get a veto and “we’ll have to start all over.” That would be terrible, of course.


Now voting. I’ll have to quit now, but doubt there will be a happy ending.

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Cardin to support Dodd-Leahy-Feingold amendment to FISA Amendment Act

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th July 2008

Just spoke with a staffer at the Cardin office, who confirmed that Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) will be supporting the Dodd-Feingold-Leahy amendment to the FISA Amendment Act. Their amendment removes language conferring immunity from civil lawsuits to telecommunications companies who worked with the NSA warrantless surveillance program. A staffer at Senator Mikulski’s (D-MD) office was unable to say how she would vote on that amendment.

You can use the easy Blue America tool I did to contact your own Senators. You give it your phone number and zip code, and the system calls you and connects you to the right Senator’s office. There’s a brief bit of phone coaching first, a script, and a place to record what happened. (You can leave the phone number blank and still get the script and form to record what happened.)

Via “Get FISA Right“, which also recommends a similar Electronic Freedom Foundation system (doesn’t call you, though) about the whole FISA bill.


Graphic and button via firedoglake, where you’ll find a lot of good links to Senator Dodd, Glenn Greenwald, and others.

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Reply to Senator Obama by “Get FISA Right”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th July 2008

I don’t usually just cut and paste a post, but this will be an exception. I’ve added a couple of links within the post; to see the reply itself, click the first link below. “Get FISA Right” is a group primarily organized at the Obama campaign web site “”

An Open Letter to Senator Obama
From the 20,000+ members of the group
“Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right”

Dear Senator Obama,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to us with your post “My Position On FISA” dated July 3rd, 2008. In your response, you pledged to “listen to [our] concerns, take them seriously, and seek to earn [our] ongoing support,” and in that spirit, we would like to continue this conversation. We ask that you help transfer our passion and political activism into getting the FISA bill right — now.

Senator, as a legal scholar who has done extensive study of our country’s constitution you know that the FISA re-authorization bill currently before the Senate (HR 6304) threatens the rights guaranteed to American citizens in the Constitution, especially the Fourth Amendment.

One of the most troubling parts of this bill is its provision to provide retroactive immunity from civil lawsuits for telecommunications companies that may have assisted the Bush administration in violating the civil rights of Americans. You wrote in your statement that you “support striking Title II,” which provides this immunity, “from the bill, and will work with Chris Dodd, Jeff Bingaman and others in an effort to remove this provision in the Senate.”

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