The Billings Outpost

Careful: NSA is reading this over your shoulder



Let’s get the latest National Security Administration news out of the way. We wouldn’t want them spending one more taxpayer dollar than necessary to read this whole column.

Yet more leaks have emerged in the past week, informing a weary world that the NSA network has been spying on the Vatican, the United Nations, the Taliban, and pretty much every country or group out there whose citizens possess electronic devices (and probably some who don’t).

On Saturday, a New York Times article (“No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming N.S.A.”) calls the agency “an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets, all the while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations.”

In fact, The Times’ article asserts, NSA’s 24/7 surveillance program provides about half of President Obama’s daily security briefing. (In an ironic twist, the article noted that The Times was not detailing in print all of the agency’s leaked activities due to NSA concerns about compromising national security.)

NSA officials haven’t been very helpful in explaining this excessive snooping nor in making the issue go away. They are usually repeating some version of: 1. We didn’t do it; 2. Everybody does it; 3. We need to do it to keep the country safe and fight terrorism because of 9/11.

Short of muzzling leaker extraordinaire Edward Snowden (unlikely) and his journalist compadre, Green Greenwald (ditto), the best the Obama administration can seem to do right now is order a review of NSA intelligence gathering, tell the agency to stop spying at the U.N., and try to maintain an aura of not-very-plausible deniability that the president knew much of anything about it. Good luck with that.

Concern over NSA’s actions has seeped into the U.S. Congress, sort of. Last week, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) introduced a bill to reform the NSA called “The USA Freedom Act.” Sensenbrenner, incidentally, was one of the guys who came up with the USA Patriot Act, which helped create this dismal situation in the first place.

Don’t get your hopes up though. There’s already a much-weaker bill making greater headway. But members know they’d better get off the dime because this issue is uniting too many disparate groups. When you’ve got the ACLU and the NRA joining forces, it’s time to do something, or at least look like they are.

No fun

Here’s one more brief NSA item to show that not only are these particular feds busy dissembling about their own activities, they also have no sense of humor.

Minnesota entrepreneur Dan McCall has for years been making a living selling parody T-shirts and other items making fun of NSA surveillance and similar government activities. After the Snowden/Greenwald leaks, however, the site featuring his items got a cease-and-desist order because of shirts sporting the NSA logo and stating, “Peeping while you’re sleeping,” and “NSA: the only part of the government that actually listens.”

The site,, removed the shirt and told McCall that the T-shirt content “infringes upon the intellectual property rights” of the NSA. McCall has now sued the NSA for violating his First Amendment rights, claiming that the agency’s infringement claims are “unconstitutionally overbroad.”

Daines event

Back in Big Sky Country, U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., scheduled a public event for noon Wednesday, Nov. 6, at the Bozeman Holiday Inn to “thank his supporters and all Montanans,” as one of his staffers put it.

Will this be his official announcement that he’s running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Max Baucus? That’s what the street says, and the street is rarely wrong on such things (especially since, in Montana anyway, the street includes virtually the entire state).

Broker fees

After watching a PBS Frontline special the other night on the pathetic state of U.S. retirement savings and the increasingly big hit investment fund fees are taking on them, I noted that Rep. Daines recently voted against helping the situation anytime soon.

U.S. Labor Department officials have been advocating rules requiring financial advisers and brokers to act in their customers’ best interests. Known as the “suitability standard,” the concept is akin to rules governing the activities of stockbrokers and other financial professionals. It means that the latter will promote financial products suitable to the particular investor instead of those that will draw larger fees or commissions for the adviser.

Wall Street, predictably, doesn’t like this idea and has been lobbying against it. Daines was one of 224 House Republicans who voted last week for a proposal to force the Labor Department to delay any such rules until the Securities and Exchange Commission comes up with its own, and the SEC hasn’t exactly been on a fast track in that area. The president has already said that he will veto the House measure.

 Stamped out

Word has arrived that Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, is also one of the largest recipients of food stamps, meaning the huge amount of food stamps used to buy products in Walmart stores.

I’m guessing that plenty of folks using those food stamps are some of the company’s own employees, who typically are paid low wages and work less than full time and therefore are more likely to be eligible.

According to recent reports, Americans spent about 18 percent of all food stamp dollars at Walmart, which amounts to about $14 billion of the whole $80 billion Congress budgeted in 2012 for food stamps.

It’s in Walmart’s financial interest to keep staff wages and hours down so their own people qualify for food stamps since a slew of them are going to be spent at the giant retailer’s stores. And it may not seem to be in Walmart’s interest for the government to cut down on food stamp monthly allotments (which is exactly what the Farm Bill now being hashed out in a Senate/House conference committee would do).

Nearly 48 million Americans (a record number of recipients) just saw their food stamps reduced by 5 percent as of Nov. 1, amounting to about $36 less each month for a family of four getting an average $278 in monthly food stamp benefits.

In Montana, the Nov. 1 food stamp cut will affect an estimated 131,000 recipients (13 percent of the state’s population) and amount to about a $13-million reduction in fiscal 2014, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. That 131,000 number includes about 55,000 children and about 24,000 elderly or people with disabilities.

Quote of the week

“My advice would be to take everything you think Snowden has and get it out yourself. It would certainly be a shock to the agency. But bad news doesn’t get better with age. The sooner they get it out and put it behind them, the faster they can begin to rebuild.”

- Bobby R. Inman, former head of the National Security Agency, on how the NSA should handle continuing leaks about its extensive spying network.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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