A New Battle Over Government Spying

The infamous 702 surveillance powers are expiring, AIPAC to spend $100 million to unseat the Squad, and stories from Gaza.

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Thanks to an unlikely collision of events — sparked by Republican outrage at the surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page — there is now significant hostility to unchecked government surveillance among both Democrats and Republicans, and the authorities the government claims to have are getting challenged in a way they haven’t since the revelations by Edward Snowden about NSA snooping a decade ago. 

The intelligence community’s famous 702 spying powers expire at the end of the year, and intelligence hawks are pushing to reauthorize the law without any real reforms, but they’re getting bipartisan pushback. Their opening bid was leaked to Politico in the form of a summary, rather than legislative text, and one particular line in it jumped out at me. 

According to the summary, the legislation “allows all foreigners applying for a visa, immigration, or asylum, to be vetted using 702 queries.”

What that means: Any time somebody engages with the immigration process, even from inside the United States, the NSA could search through reams of warrantlessly acquired communications for information about them.

A coalition of 63 Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations has told Congress it’s deeply concerned about how the government interprets its spying power and is opposed to extending it without reforms. Instead, the reform being proposed would somehow give the government more authority, particularly as it relates to immigrant communities. The legislation connected to this summary hasn’t been released yet, and might not be till after Thanksgiving, so it’s impossible to know who exactly is behind it, though Politico dubbed it a bipartisan bill. 

If you’re involved in this fight and know which Democrat(s) signed off on this, let me know please. A parallel effort is underway to draft an actual reform bill, with powerful Democrats and Republicans teaming up in a way they haven’t really done since January 6. This is something we’ll be watching closely at The Intercept between now and the end of the year. 

Meanwhile, Alex Sammon reported today that the battle between AIPAC and the Squad (and allied Democrats who are also critical of Israel), which is a primary focus of my new book, is going into overdrive this election season. AIPAC is planning to spend $100 million to knock those members out of Congress. Last cycle, AIPAC and allied groups spent around $40 million to significant effect. 

AOC’s response: “Criticism of the Israeli gov is virtually nonexistent in US politics, but apparently that’s not enough. Gotta spend *$100 million* to unseat the few who believe in Palestinian human rights & a ceasefire that most Americans already support. The acceptable level of dissent is 0.”

I also wanted to share two great pieces we published recently. One is a dispatch from Gaza by Palestinian journalist Hind Khoudary. She was among the reporters who left Gaza city on Friday in a chaotic exodus that you just have to read to believe. These are scenes that shouldn’t exist anywhere but in horror movies.   

The other is a historical look at the relationship between Joe Biden and Israel by Jeremy Scahill. The full piece is worth a read, but here’s a snippet: 

There is one story from these decades of Biden’s dedication to Israel that seems eerily prescient given the bloodbath playing out in Gaza right now. It took place early in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In public, Biden was neither a cheerleader for the invasion nor an opponent. But in a private meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Prime Minister Menachem Begin in June 1982, Biden’s support for the brutality of the invasion appeared to outstrip even that of the Israeli government.

As the Israeli prime minister was grilled in the Senate over Israel’s disproportionate use of force, including the targeting of civilians with cluster bomb munitions, Biden, in Begin’s words, “rose and delivered a very impassioned speech” defending the invasion. Upon his return to Israel, Begin told Israeli reporters he was shocked when Biden “said he would go even further than Israel, adding that he’d forcefully fend off anyone who sought to invade his country, even if that meant killing women or children.” Begin said, “I disassociated myself from these remarks,” adding, “I said to him: No, sir; attention must be paid. According to our values, it is forbidden to hurt women and children, even in war. Sometimes there are casualties among the civilian population as well. But it is forbidden to aspire to this. This is a yardstick of human civilization, not to hurt civilians.”

Coming from Begin, the comments were striking, because he had been notorious as a leader of the Irgun, a militant group that carried out some of the worst acts of ethnic cleansing accompanying the creation of the state of Israel, including the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre. The details of his exchange with Biden about Lebanon did not receive attention in the U.S. press. Instead, the New York Times focused on what it termed the “bitterest exchange” between Biden and Begin over the issue of Israeli settlements, which Biden opposed because, he said, it was hurting Israel’s reputation in the U.S. “He hinted — more than hinted — that if we continue with this policy, it is possible that he will propose cutting our financial aid,” Begin alleged.

Over the years, Biden has referenced this confrontation when explaining his opposition to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a disagreement among very good friends. Biden has long argued that these expansions undermine prospects for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, though his rhetoric has often been contradicted by his actions, as was the case with his opposition to last week’s U.N. vote labeling the settlements illegal.

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