Fate of Domestic Surveillance Left to the 11th Hour

Domestic Surveillance

Efforts in Congress to retain the federal government’s mass surveillance powers took a setback on May 23 as a group of Republican senators blocked legislation aimed at extending three key provisions of the USA Patriot Act, just eight days before the clauses were scheduled to expire.

The senators, led by Rand Paul of Kentucky, helped defeat a bill whose Section 215 would have extended provisions of the Patriot Act that allow federal agencies to indiscriminately collect bulk data on the phone records of Americans. This in addition to conducting warrantless spying on non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, and, without ever having to identify them by name, wiretapping their phone lines, mobile communications devices or Internet connections.

The bill, backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also from Kentucky, sought to extend those surveillance programs for two months beyond their June 1 sunset. The bill was defeated 57-42 on a procedural vote that fell three votes short of the 60-vote threshold required for its passage.

Immediately before the bill’s defeat, the Senate also rejected a bipartisan measure—the USA Freedom Act—that was approved by the House of Representatives on May 13. The legislation seeks to change the Patriot Act by ending the government’s mass collection of Americans’ phone records while still allowing federal agencies to access the information from phone companies on a case-by-case basis.

The measure fell three votes short of the 60 votes it required to succeed in the Senate, with 12 Republican senators voting for it. The 57 to 42 vote tally followed a vigorous debate and intense last-minute pressure from senior Republican leaders. But those efforts ultimately proved ineffective in the face of stiff opposition from a group of relatively younger libertarian-leaning Republican senators led by Sen. Paul.

A candidate in the 2016 presidential election, Paul has long opposed extending Section 215 of the Patriot Act by even a single day. On May 20-21, he spoke in the Senate against the provision for over 10 hours, arguing that Section 215 is harmful to liberty and privacy—a stand that the American Civil Liberties Union has also taken since the Patriot Act was created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (On May 7, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the ACLU in a case against the government over Section 215.)

The back-to-back votes in the Senate, which came minutes before lawmakers broke for recess following a six-week session, were interpreted by media as a major embarrassment for Sen. McConnell. Just hours earlier, McConnell had been cheered by the successful passage of a “fast track” trade promotion bill related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade alliance opposed by a variety of public interest and human rights groups, partly because it has been secretly negotiated.

In hopes that lawmakers might still come to an agreement over the Patriot Act, McConnell said he would reconvene the Senate on May 31, just hours before the midnight deadline to extend the law’s key provisions.

ACLU’s New App ’Protects’ Cell Videos of Police Abuse

Mobile Justice

Mobile Justice,” a free smartphone app from the American Civil Liberties Union, allows users to capture exchanges with law enforcement and automatically transmit the video to ACLU chapters in various states—preserving it even if the phone is seized or destroyed. The app, which can be used on Android and iOS phones, also provides information on individual rights.

Misuse of Antipsychotics

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Reports Misuse of Antipsychotics on Medicaid-Enrolled Children

A study by the Department of Health and Human Services on the use of antipsychotic drugs among children enrolled in Medicaid found quality-of-care concerns in 67 percent of the 687 cases reviewed.

The study, released in March, found evidence of poor management of drug regimes in 53 percent of cases, and that 41 percent of patients received the wrong treatment, 34 percent took prescribed drugs for too long, 23 percent got the wrong dose, and 37 percent took too many drugs.

Even very young children were prescribed multiple drugs: In one case, a 4-year-old diagnosed with ADHD and a mood disorder was given four psychotropic drugs. And, in California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas, 92 percent of Medicaid claims showed antipsychotics were prescribed without “medically accepted pediatric indications,” according to the study.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that children on Medicaid are prescribed antipsychotics four times more often than those with private insurance.

Rolling Stone Sued for Defamation

Associate Dean Nicole Eramo of the University of Virginia has sued Rolling Stone magazine over its retracted campus rape story, claiming she was defamed. The suit seeks $7.5m in damages.

Peaceful protests are effective


of the time, peaceful protest was effective against government repression, according to new research, which also found that nonviolence tended to foster democracy.

Harvard Admissions Complaint Claims Bias Against Asian-Americans

Harvard University faces new allegations of racial discrimination in admission policies, according to a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights office last month.

A coalition of 64 Asian-American organizations filed the allegations, contending Asian-American students are routinely discriminated against by admissions policies that are highly subjective. Harvard denied the allegations. Robert Iuliano, the school’s general counsel, said in a statement: “The College’s admissions policies are fully compliant with the law and are essential to the pedagogical objectives that underlie its educational mission.”

He noted an earlier complaint, similar to the new filing, was examined by the DOE’s civil rights investigators who concluded Harvard’s admissions policies were within the law.

The complaint claims Asian-American students had to score 140 points higher on SAT tests than white students, and 450 points higher than African-American students, to be considered for admission. It calls for immediate cessation of discriminatory practices, and seeks a federal investigation.

A Case for Troubled Economies to Go ‘Cashless’

A troubled economic system in Argentina, complicated by low confidence in the nation’s currency, is prompting suggestions that the country go cashless, instead using some form of electronic currency (such as Bitcoin). Technology/emerging markets blogger Pablo Valerio wrote in April that going “cashless” could help reduce bribery and other public corruption, help Argentina and similarly struggling economies deal with black market exchange rates for U.S. dollars, address debt, and prepare for a more stable currency.

Valerio worries that “tinkering” with Argentina’s failing currency could render the nation’s paper money worthless—as happened in Venezuela—and that lifting existing currency-exchange restrictions to allow Argentinians to buy U.S. dollars could cause a run on the country’s banks.

Micronations Claim ‘No Man’s Land’ in Europe

So-called ‘micronations’—one as small as a garden plot—are popping up at an increasing rate, attracting potential “virtual” citizens. The most recent is the Kingdom of Enclava, proclaimed April 23 on a small parcel of land on the Croatia-Slovenia border, citing terra nullius (no man’s land).

According to Enclava’s official website, founders are drafting a constitution and have plans to create a tax-free community of like-minded people who will be able to choose from five official languages—English, Polish, Slovenian, Croatian and Mandarin Chinese. By mid-May, more than 5,000 people had applied for citizenship.

The Free Republic of Liberland, another European micronation, sits on the west bank of the Danube at the Croatia-Serbia border. Like Enclava, Liberland has no official recognition from any world government but has drawn more than 300,000 applicants.

Feds Approve U.S.-Cuba Ferry

The Obama administration has granted licenses to four companies planning ferry service between Florida and Cuba—for the first time in 50 years. Leonard Moecklin Sr., managing partner of Havana Ferry, called the development a “… [historic] event” in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the Florida Sun Sentinel reported. The move follows the President’s December 2014 announcement that the U.S. and communist Cuba would restore diplomatic relations after a long estrangement brought on by the Cold War.

Spending for experience

Spending for ‘Experience’ Makes People Happier Than Buying ‘Things’

People who spend their money on “experiential purchases”—travel, adventure, a class or workshop, a visit to a museum, or even a nice meal in a restaurant—net more lasting happiness from those expenditures than they would from buying material things like new shoes or a dining room set, according to a study by Cornell University professor Thomas Gilovich. Gilovich told Fast Company that in 20+ years of study on the relationship between money and happiness, he consistently found that satisfaction from purchasing material goods fades faster and produces less anticipatory joy than money spent on experiences—the opposite of long-held conventional wisdom on the subject.

America’s Shifting Religious Landscape

Religious affiliations among America’s millennial generation “…display much lower levels … than older generations,” including declining connections to Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, a Pew Research Center study found.

“Between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the population fell from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent,” the study released in May reported. “By contrast the size of the historically black Protestant tradition has remained relatively stable … [and] evangelical Protestants, while declining slightly as a percentage of the U.S. public, probably have grown in absolute numbers as the overall U.S. population has continued to expand.”

Americans of non-Christian faiths rose from 4.7 to 5.9 percent in the study period, while those who said they were unaffiliated—defined by Pew as “atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’”—showed the sharpest increase, from 16.1 to 22.8 percent.

America’s religious landscape