Informed Comment http://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 03 May 2015 04:33:59 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.1 One in six species faces extinction as a result of climate changehttp://www.juancole.com/2015/05/species-extinction-climate.html http://www.juancole.com/2015/05/species-extinction-climate.html#comments Sun, 03 May 2015 04:33:59 +0000 http://www.juancole.com/?p=152022 By James Dyke | (The Conversation) | –

The Earth is on course to lose up to one in six of all its species, if carbon emissions continue as they currently are. This global extinction risk masks very large regional variations. Up to a quarter of South American species may be doomed.

These are some of the findings of a comprehensive piece of new research conducted by evolutionary ecologist Mark Urban and published in Science.

You may console yourself that these are the very upper estimates of some of the consequences of uncontrolled carbon emissions. We can’t really be facing such a collapse in biodiversity can we? What Urban establishes is that far from being fanciful, these estimates are in fact the results of very robust analysis. What’s more they could be worse. Much worse.

Assessing how many species have gone extinct due to human impacts is notoriously hard. Previously, I reported on a study published in Nature that estimated that over the past 500 years, 13% of all species had been lost as a consequence of human behaviour. Urban’s study uses a similar approach in that he conducts a systematic review of published papers and builds a series of statistical models that synthesise the central findings.

Urban found that keeping emissions to within rates that would limit climate change to the “safe” amount of 2℃ would lead to a little over 5% increase in total extinction risks. Business as usual carbon emissions would produce over 4℃ warming and nearly 16% extinction.

Extinction risks accelerate with global temperature rises:

Extinction risks under current 0.8℃ post-industrial rise; the 2℃ policy target; and two IPCC scenarios.
Urban/Science, CC BY

Urban also made the surprising discovery that the varying research methods employed didn’t matter – the different papers all pointed towards similar estimates of extinction risk. Studies that built statistical models that correlate environmental factors to the distribution and abundance of species, produced on average the same results as mechanistic or process-based models that simulate populations of species. Very different techniques were producing the same magnitudes of extinction risk.

However, there were some key factors in Urban’s analysis that were associated with large uncertainty. The biggest differences in extinction risk were associated with different carbon emissions scenarios. This will be largely up to us to determine – how much of the existing reserves of coal, oil and gas are we willing to burn off? The second most important factor was the extinction debt – the unavoidable extinction of species – as a consequence of habitat loss.

If a species of tree frog can only reproduce in a particular species of tree, then when the very last tree of that species is cut down, the frog is doomed to extinction. There is for that particular region an extinction debt: while we may see individuals of that tree frog species now, at some point in the future they will vanish. This is an example of 100% habitat loss required to produce extinction. But many species will become extinct some time before all their habitat is lost. Urban conducted analysis in which he assumed 100%, 95% and 80% of habitat loss was required before extinction. He found a three-fold increase in extinction risk from 100% to 80% habitat loss.

No trees, no frogs.
Benedict Adam, CC BY-SA

Another crucial factor will be how fast climate change occurs. As the Earth’s climate warms, and local conditions change, species will respond in essentially three ways.

First, if environmental change is very slow, then individuals that are better adapted to new conditions will progressively replace the previously dominant individuals. Slow, progressive climate change may produce evolutionary change.

Second, if the rate of change is faster than evolutionary processes, then species may be able to buffer an amount of environmental change. This buffering can come as a result of what scientists call “phenotype plasticity”. Certain species can express different genes as a response to environmental change. This changes their phenotype – their physical bodies and behaviour – so that they are better adapted to new conditions. This is more often observed in immobile or stationary organisms such as plants that can express different genes in hotter or drier conditions.

The crystalline iceplant can switch between two different modes of photosynthesis as a response to drought.
yummifruitbat, CC BY-NC-SA

Third, if climate change happens too fast for evolution or adaptation, mobile species may be able to escape extinction by dispersing to other more suitable habitats. In order for this to be possible, there must be some viable route. For plants that disperse seeds on the wind, this may not be such an issue. But for species that produce offspring next to or near them it is crucial. Tree frogs may be able to respond to warmer temperature by progressively moving higher up the side of a mountain, but in order for that to happen there must not be any barriers such as rivers in the way.

These barriers are not only rivers, but roads, towns, fields and other human-driven land use changes. A third of the Earth’s surface has been converted to agriculture, cities continue to expand and road and rail networks multiply. This means we are attacking biodiveristy on two fronts: locally through destroying and fragmenting habitat, and globally by affecting the climate.

Urban ends his Science paper by noting that in the early 1980s climatologists warned that the signal that humans were affecting the climate was coming across loud and clear. Events since then show that our civilisation has either not heard or headed that message.

We are now detecting species loss due to this climate change and the message from Urban’s and other studies is unambiguous. We must leave most of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we are to avoid consigning a significant fraction of its species to extinction.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

James Dyke is Lecturer in Complex Systems Simulation at University of Southampton

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

VOA News: “Study: One in Six Species Threatened with Extinction”

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US Airstrike in Syria kills 53 Civilians, 6 Childrenhttp://www.juancole.com/2015/05/airstrike-civilians-children.html http://www.juancole.com/2015/05/airstrike-civilians-children.html#comments Sun, 03 May 2015 04:33:04 +0000 http://www.juancole.com/?p=152064 By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

As Mariam Karouny reports for Reuters, the US air strike on Friday that inadvertently hit a village of non-combatants, killing members of six families, raises new questions about the Obama administration’s approach to fighting Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) in Syria. Despite months of bombing raids, Daesh has lost no territory in Syria.

The strike, according to the Syria Observatory, landed on a village on the east bank of the Euphrates River rather hitting its fundamentalist target.

US air strikes in Syria are estimated to have killed 2000 Daesh fighters, out of an estimated 25,000 in Syria and Iraq. However, thousands more volunteers are said to have gone to join up once they hear that the US was targeting Daesh. Some of “radicalism” in the Middle East is just anti-imperialism, something that Washington interventionists are congenitally unable to understand.

The major accomplishment of the bombing that began last September was to keep Daesh from taking the Kurdish enclave of Kobane in the north of Raqqa Province. But the Kobane area, which had some 300,000 Kurds, is still a ghost town.

In contrast, in Iraq the bombing has been done as close air support for Kurdish Peshmerga fighters or for Iraqi and Iran-backed forces. With those fighters on the ground the US helped allies take Mt. Sinjar and Tikrit from Daesh, reducing the territory it holds in Iraq by 25% compared to last summer.

But in Syria, the US has no moderate fighters to support, since almost all rebels have joined Daesh, al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra or the Support Front), or other Salafi Jihadi groups that reject democracy and want to reduce religious minorities like Christians to barely tolerated non-citizens who have to pay a poll tax to avoid being attacked.

In Syria, moreover, there is a danger that if Daesh were weakened, the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar al-Assad would be able to take advantage of that development. The US wants to see Bashar, by now a notorious war criminal, overthrown.

What comes along with not having a ground force to support is lack of good intelligence on the ground in Syria. Hence the bombing of innocent non-combatants, including children.

The US says it wants to train 15,000 moderate fighters in conjunction with Turkey. But it would take years for such a force to be deployed and become effective. Moreover, there were more than that number of moderate fighters two and a half years ago, and they’ve all by now scattered or joined al-Qaeda affiliates. What is to stop the same thing from happening to the new crew? And wouldn’t they deliver their training and weaponry to Daesh (as already has often happened)?

This revolving door of US-trained fighters has been a key problem in Afghanistan, but no one ever brings it up.

The bombing of the civilians actually helps Daesh propaganda enormously. This policy in Syria needs reconsideration.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

CCTV News: “Activists: 52 killed in U.S.-led airstrike in Syria”

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Pakistan – Court jails 10 for life over attack on Malala and on Women’s Educationhttp://www.juancole.com/2015/05/pakistan-malala-education.html http://www.juancole.com/2015/05/pakistan-malala-education.html#comments Sun, 03 May 2015 04:24:32 +0000 http://www.juancole.com/?p=152060 France24 English | –

An anti-terror court in Pakistan has sentenced 10 men for their roles in the 2012 attack on Malala Yousafzai.

France24 English: “PAKISTAN – Court jails 10 for life over Malala attack”

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The China-Pakistan trade corridor and its implications for regional securityhttp://www.juancole.com/2015/05/corridor-implications-regional.html http://www.juancole.com/2015/05/corridor-implications-regional.html#comments Sun, 03 May 2015 04:17:52 +0000 http://www.juancole.com/?p=151999 By Brian M. Downing | (Informed Comment) | –

China and Pakistan announced, with considerable fanfare in Islamabad, a $46 billion dollar investment program to build a transportation corridor from the western Pakistani port of Gwadar to Xinjiang region in northwestern China. In time, the route will link with Chinese railways bringing Afghanistan’s wealth to world markets.

The agreement will give China a land route with the Middle East and South Asia that does not pass through potentially-contested chokepoints near Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India. The move may bring greater prosperity to the region but there are risks of greater tensions and unrest.

The India-Pakistan rivalry

The arrangement is not being welcomed in India. Its security bureaus see it as part of China’s “string of pearls” strategy of surrounding India with potential foes.. India knows well that the recent deal was preceded by the announced sale of eight Chinese submarines to Pakistan.

China is not acting artlessly. Only last September, it inked a $20 billion arrangement with India to modernize its railways, develop industrial parks, and allow Indian products greater access into China. The aim of the Pakistani deal, then, may be less to bolster China and Pakistan vis-a-vis India than to strengthen China’s influence with both countries and to benefit from greater cooperation and trade between the rivals.

There will also be concern – in India, the US, and elsewhere – that China will one day establish a sizable naval base at Gwadar, the port that China developed over the last few years which is three hundred miles from the Strait of Hormuz. Pakistan publicly offered such a base at a Beijing parley but China rather pointedly declined, much to Islamabad’s embarrassment. Nonetheless, the prospect of a base so near vital oil sources will appeal to parts of the Chinese state, especially the navy whose ambitions may be increasingly influenced by navalist geopolitical thought.

Three insurgent groups

The 1800-mile route will pass through some of the most unstable parts of the region and likely aggravate local discontent. The southern terminus is in Baluchistan, a mineral-rich region comprising forty percent of Pakistan’s territory. Unfairly deprived of its autonomy by Pakistan over the years, at least in the view of separatists, the region has seen continuous unrest.

Prosperity in Pakistan has not been shared in a remotely equitable manner, especially in the Baluch region. The boon that the China deal promises is unlikely to usher in a new era and wealth will continue to go disproportionately to Punjabis in military and business elites. Baluch grievances will be underscored; the ongoing insurgency will almost certainly grow. Chinese workers have been targeted in recent years; they will be again. This problem contributes to Beijing’s coolness to a military base at Gwadar.

The transportation network will not run through restive Pashtun tribal areas. However, Afghan iron, copper, rare earths, and other minerals will pass through the storied Khyber Pass, a Shinwari- and Afridi-Pashtun region. Pashtuns have never been adequately integrated into Pakistan. They have enjoyed considerable autonomy stemming from nineteenth-century treaties with the British that Islamabad has generally respected. The Pakistani Taliban has battled state encroachments and will continue to do so. Regionalist and fiercely Islamist, the Pakistani and Afghan Pashtuns are unlikely to welcome a greater Chinese presence, even if it comes at the expense of the US.

The northern terminus is in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, home to ten million Uighurs who resent the increasing economic and political dominance of the politically-dominant Han Chinese. Uighurs have rioted in Xinjiang and launched attacks in train stations in eastern and southern China. Perhaps most unsettlingly, Uighurs have gone abroad, often by way of Vietnam, to learn the skills of war from al Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan and the Islamic State in the Middle East. The link to South Asia and the Middle East will bring new wealth, greater Han dominance, and a capacious path for fighters returning to the Uighur homeland.

* * *

The investment program with Pakistan will make China even more of a world actor. China is heady with its remarkable economic success over the last few decades. But the zeal to return their country to its leading position in the world may cause it to overlook the problems and perils that come with involvements around the world.

Tensions with India and danger of insurgency aside, China is tying itself more closely to Pakistan – a country that is politically unstable, desperately poor and overcrowded, and held together, if tenuously, by an extreme form of Islam. Most importantly, China will have to steer clear of being drawn into the ambitions of Pakistan’s officer corps and intelligence services, the leaders of which have undoubtedly convinced themselves that they now have China firmly on their side.

Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning at gmail d o t com.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

VOA: “Chinese Billions Boost Friendship with Pakistan (On Assignment)”

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Tom Cotton’s ‘Chickenhawk’ Taunt at Iran FM Demeans Jeb Bush, GOP Fieldhttp://www.juancole.com/2015/05/cottons-chickenhawk-demeans.html http://www.juancole.com/2015/05/cottons-chickenhawk-demeans.html#comments Sat, 02 May 2015 06:45:52 +0000 http://www.juancole.com/?p=152053 By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | –

So freshman senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) got into a Twitter slamming match with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif this week. Zarif spoke at New York University on Wednesday and asserted that if there were a UNSC deal on Iran’s nuclear energy program, international sanctions would be lifted whether Tom Cotton liked it or not.

Cotton fired back on Twitter, saying he had heard that Zarif called him out. He added (read from bottom):

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 1.48.14 AM

Zarif replied graciously to Cotton’s unbearable boorishness:

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 1.54.52 AM

But by bringing up the issue of chickenhawks, Cotton is doing the Republican Party no favors. George W. Bush avoided serving in Vietnam by taking cover with the Texas Air National Guard, and he appears at some point to have gone AWOL. Bush could at any time have volunteered to go serve in Vietnam (it didn’t have to be as a pilot), but did not. His vice president, Dick Cheney, had five student deferments even as his peers were being drafted and sent off to die in the jungle. He said, when asked, that he had had other things to do. Bush and Cheney sent over 4000 US military personnel to die in an illegal war of aggression in Iraq, but had never seen a battlefield themselves.

Jeb Bush also did not volunteer to serve in Vietnam when he turned eligible in 1971. He registered for the draft but was not called up. Over 58,000 US military personnel died in Vietnam, but the Bush boys, despite never having met a war they didn’t adore, never set foot there. The Bushes of Connecticut in this generation no more fight their own wars than they do their own shopping. Is Cotton calling Jeb Bush a coward?

Scott Walker dropped out of Marquette in spring of 1990 and could have joined up then. He sat out the Gulf War. While at Marquette he had run for student office and was found guilty of cheating by starting his campaign a week earlier than the rules allowed.

Lindsey Graham and Kerry Bowers seem to me on quick inspection to be the only GOP candidates for president with military experience. Graham was in the Air Force in the 1980s and later was a reserve colonel with USAF JAG. He was recalled during the Gulf War though not sent to the front. He joined the Air Force reserves in the late 1990s and in the mid-2000s served briefly in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Air Force attorney.

Kerry Bowers was a 30-year man in the US military and was deployed to Bahrain during the Gulf War.

The tone of Cotton’s taunt of Zarif, however, would not even spare politicians who had been active duty military. Apparently they would have had to volunteer for the front during a shooting war to avoid being cowards.

So I’m pretty sure Cotton just called most of the Republican candidates for president cowards, and he certainly called the president and vice president in the last GOP presidential administration cowards.

Having been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, I obviously don’t agree that not volunteering for the front makes a person a coward.

I don’t doubt Cotton’s personal bravery or that of any Vet. But it would also have been brave to refuse to serve in an illegal war in which the US killed a lot of peasants. The unprovoked Iraq war in which Cotton fought set off events that left hundreds of thousands dead and left Iraq a long-term basket case. The world would have been better off with regard to character had Cotton declined to participate in that carnage.

As for Zarif, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. By 1982 the war was a draw and Saddam was suing for peace. Ayatollah Khomeini refused, having the Iranian army fight on until 1988. Those six years were lost years for Iran and Iraq, war years that did not have to be, during which hundreds of thousands died. On the other hand, the onus for causing the war must remain on Saddam. I don’t think Zarif missed anything, morally.

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Related video:

Wochit News: “Iran’s Zarif Fires Back at Tom Cotton’s Tweets”

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10,000 Turkish Police Repress Mayday Labor Protestshttp://www.juancole.com/2015/05/turkish-repress-protests.html http://www.juancole.com/2015/05/turkish-repress-protests.html#comments Sat, 02 May 2015 04:53:50 +0000 http://www.juancole.com/?p=152047 Aljazeera Top Stories | –

Aljazeera Top Stories: “TURKEY MAYDAY PROTEST”

See also:

AJ+: “May Day Protest In Turkey Goes Ahead Despite Ban”

For more see Turkey marks tense May Day as police enforce lockdown in central Istanbul

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Tesla batteries: just the beginning of how technology will transform the electric gridhttp://www.juancole.com/2015/05/batteries-technology-transform.html http://www.juancole.com/2015/05/batteries-technology-transform.html#comments Sat, 02 May 2015 04:36:03 +0000 http://www.juancole.com/?p=152042 By Michael McElfresh | (The Conversation) | –

Tesla Motors already makes batteries for its electric cars. On Thursday, it’s expected to introduce battery systems for homes, businesses and electric utilities.

The spread of cost-effective batteries will fundamentally change the way the electric grid operates. Combined with other innovations, batteries in homes and businesses will transform how people and businesses treat electricity.

Along the way, these batteries will improve the efficiency and reliability of the grid overall.

The solar factor

Right now, most power is generated at large power plants and distributed to consumers. Electric energy storage allows a two-way flow of power, which offers some significant advantages for support of the power grid. For example, storage is particularly useful for offsetting the intermittent nature of wind and solar photovoltaics, which don’t produce power on demand as a fossil fuel power plant does.

For an individual consumer, having a battery behind the meter provides a great deal of flexibility in managing energy use. Batteries allow consumers to cut their electric bills by reducing how much power they consume during peak hours when power costs more, which is the case in many states such as California.

Solar installer SolarCity has been testing battery systems made by Tesla.
SolarCity

Homes with rooftop solar panels and batteries can actually use energy from their solar systems during power outages and, with a modest amount of storage, have sufficient power to last for days if the grid is out. And with enough storage, they can disconnect from the grid indefinitely – a development utilities fear.

A number of states have net metering, programs in which utilities purchase the excess electricity from solar panels that’s fed into the grid. In combination with net metering, behind-the-meter storage creates the opportunity for customers to buy power from the grid when prices are low and then sell stored energy from batteries when prices are high. This practice, known as arbitrage, has led to concerns at utilities which have levied large additional charges for equipment installations in some places.

Commercial and industrial customers stand to benefit from behind-the-meter storage as well. They can reduce their usage during times of peak demand and cut so-called demand charges – fees for maximum power usage – that can dominate how much they pay for energy.

Batteries with wheels

From the perspective of the power grid, electric vehicles (EVs) can in many respects be considered a variation of behind-the-meter storage – they just happen to be mobile.

EV batteries can hold a significant amount of energy. The Nissan Leaf, for example, holds 24 kilowatt-hours, while an average house will use 30 kilowatt-hours per day, so a car battery could provide backup power during an outage.

An artist rendition of Tesla’s ‘gigafactory’ now under construction in Nevada which will make batteries for electric cars and stationary energy storage.
Tesla Motors

But electric cars create challenges for grid operators. Because they draw so much current during charging, there is the potential to overload circuits that serve neighborhoods. In order to mitigate this and avoid the cost of upgrading the infrastructure, some utilities offer, or require, special tariffs that reward EV charging at night when energy demand and prices are low.

By charging when the power use is low, EVs can help flatten the typical load curve of the grid and draw power at off-peak hours at night.

Since EVs are pulling power off the grid, they can also offset excess power production from wind in particular, which often generates more power than can be used late at night. That can help generators avoid the negative pricing – when excess power reduces the real-time price of power to less than zero – sometimes associated with excessive wind generation conditions.

Meanwhile, EVs can address the decreasing power sales utilities have been experiencing by adding what is a essentially another power-hungry appliance to their monthly bills.

Close on the horizon is so-called vehicle to grid (V2G) technology. Standards will finally make it possible to use the EV battery in two-way operation with utilities. The University of Delaware, for example, has experimented with ways to connect parked EVs to the electric grid. When grid operators need a short burst of power or have excess power, they push power back and forth into the EVs’ batteries. Owners could be paid for these services.

Peak shaving

A real game changer, however, would be if utilities could manage the behind-the-meter storage with another technology known as demand response – or cutting power use at key times during the day.

Utilities used to make deals with large energy users, such as factories, and call them on the phone to cut power use during peak power days. For example, in the middle of a hot summer day when the load from air conditioning is high, grid operators struggle to meet the demand. Cutting power during those peak hours gives them more capacity to avoid brownouts. And in exchange for agreeing to reduce power on peak days, customers get some sort of payment.

Demand response lowers power use during peak hours of the typical daily ‘load curve.’
US Energy Information Administration

The phone calls of old evolved into automated systems. And eventually, in deregulated markets, businesses formed that collect the demand response commitments from multiple large energy users. Then they sell that capacity to reduce power when needed on the daily energy markets. This has been an effective method for reducing dependence on the polluting and expensive generators that only run for those few weeks of peak needs.

The power of connected storage

More recently utilities – particularly those with hourly pricing plans such as ComEd in Illinois and Austin Energy in Texas – have begun experimenting with demand response in the residential market.

Smart thermostat maker Nest uses its internet-connected thermostat to respond to demand response requests on peak demand days. Customers can respond to a day-ahead phone notification by choosing to opt out of the event or they can simply adjust the thermostat to opt out after the utility has given the signal.

Some more recent demand response experiments involve hour-ahead notification. So far these experiments have mostly dealt with adjusting thermostats to reduce loads, but appliances are now being sold with the ability to use real-time pricing for operating decisions.

What if the behind-the-meter storage could be dispatched by demand response signals? If utilities could draw on the energy stored in behind-the-meter batteries and EVs, it could have a range of benefits. The connected storage could lower power costs by eliminating some peak generation needs and provide a buffer for variable wind and solar power.

For the consumer, energy storage enables a whole new way to look at home electricity use. It can provide energy security, lower energy costs and eventually offer an opportunity to become part of the market for buying and selling power.


To read more about the changing electric grid, see Why rooftop solar is disruptive to utilities – and the grid.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Michael McElfresh is Adjunct Professor of Electrical Engineering at Santa Clara University
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Related video added by Juan Cole:

“Elon Musk Debuts the Tesla Powerwall”

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Could the New USA Freedom Act stop NSA Bulk Collection of Americans’ Telephone Records?http://www.juancole.com/2015/05/collection-americans-telephone.html http://www.juancole.com/2015/05/collection-americans-telephone.html#comments Sat, 02 May 2015 04:28:40 +0000 http://www.juancole.com/?p=152040 By Mark Jaycox and Rainey Reitman | (Electronic Frontier Foundation)

A bipartisan group of congressional leaders has reintroduced the USA Freedom Act. The bill is an attempt to rein in the intelligence community’s “Collect It All” strategy, and passing USA Freedom is a first, small step in the right direction. However, it has serious faults that should be addressed.

Last year, the Senate failed to advance a somewhat different, stronger USA Freedom Act by two votes. We supported the bill because it reformed the secret court overseeing the spying and ended the bulk collection of calling records. The bill introduced this week is not as robust as last year’s bill, but it still successfully accomplishes both of these goals.

Ending Bulk Collection

Similar to last year’s bill, the new USA Freedom Act attempts to end the bulk collection of calling records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act by limiting collection to instances where there is “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a “specific selection term” used to request call detail records is associated with international terrorism. The government must use a specific selection term, which represents an “individual, account, or personal device.”

In plain English, the specific selection term is the basis for the query that the government uses when it collects records. A broad selection term (“People in California” or “People with Verizon phones”) would mean massive record collection, but carefully constructed and defined specific selection terms would strictly limit the collection. That means this provision of the bill is extremely important. The text of USA Freedom Act is tightening the definition of specific selection term in a way designed to ensure only specific individuals, accounts, and devices qualify as specific selection terms. So the bulk collection of everybody’s phone records? As far as we can tell, this should end that.

However, the definition of specific selection term is broader when it’s used to collect tangible things other than calling records. In these cases, the term must be a “person, account, address, or personal device.” The term must also limit the scope of these requests for information to the greatest extent possible, and cannot collect records that are overly broad, like those that relate to a geographic region or an entire electronic communications service provider.

Reform of the Secret Surveillance Court

The newly introduced USA Freedom Act includes reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court), the secret court that approves NSA surveillance requests. First—despite a name change—just like the previous bill, five special advocates will be appointed by the court and will be called upon whenever the court is considering a novel or significant construction of law. The amicus is meant to advocate for the protection of civil liberties and privacy, educate the court on intelligence collection or communications technologies, and answer any questions the court may have.

Second, the new USA Freedom Act directs the government to declassify “significant” FISA Court opinions and defines “significant” to include any novel interpretation of “specific selection term” or other novel construction of law.

These two changes are key because they add needed transparency. The one-sided FISA Court will no longer only hear from the government, and there will be more public scrutiny of a judge’s decision whether or not to use the advocate.

A Small Step Instead of a Giant Leap

While the new USA Freedom Act is largely similar to last year’s bill, there are significant changes that weaken the legislation. One example is the lack of clearly mandated procedures to delete any information unrelated to the target of the investigation. These “super minimization procedures” should be added back into the bill as they ensure stronger privacy protections beyond the use of a narrow “specific selection term.”

The bill includes a new emergency clause for the Attorney General, allowing for surveillance of a targeted suspect who enters the United States for 72 hours or until a new surveillance order is obtained. The bill also increases the mandatory minimum sentence for material support of terrorism from 15 to 20 years. Both additions are unrelated to the calling records collection addressed by the rest of the bill and should be removed.

The bill, like other iterations of USA Freedom, also extends the sunset provisions of the Patriot Act and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. Unfortunately, this extends the expiration of Section 215 through 2019— even longer than the Senate version of USA Freedom last year would have.

What the USA Freedom Act Doesn’t Do

This bill is focused on Section 215 telephone surveillance and FISA Court reform. However, much more must be done to end untargeted surveillance of innocent people both in the U.S. and around the world.

With respect to call detail records, it allows the NSA to get a second set of records (a second “hop“) of individuals identified in the initial request’s production that may still allow for the collection of records with less than “reasonable, articulable suspicion.”

The new USA Freedom Act does not address Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, the problematic 2008 law that the government uses for PRISM and “upstream” mass surveillance. We remain committed to reforming Section 702 and will continue to fiercely fight against mass surveillance. We do think that success in enacting USA Freedom will help Congress move toward passing additional reforms to 702.

The new USA Freedom Act also continues to exclude meaningful protections for the rights of non-U.S. persons. Ultimately, ending bulk surveillance necessitates addressing Executive Order 12333, the primary legal authority the NSA uses to surveil non-Americans.

Finally, many of the problems we are facing today stem from rampant secrecy and lack of oversight. Surveillance abuses will not be resolved until our broken classification system—which shields matters of public importance from public scrutiny—is fixed.

A Step Forward Is Better Than a Step Backward

The bill is far from ideal. But it does shift the status quo towards more privacy and, if passed, will be the first time since 1978 that the NSA has had its activities scaled back by Congress. It substantially limits the scope of collection by the government for tangible things under three different laws, and it offers small but real institutional reform to the FISA Court that only Congress can create.

We’ve been clear that we must end mass surveillance under all surveillance authorities. We’re disappointed that this bill does not do more toward that end, but the new USA Freedom Act serves as a welcome first step and should be seen as such.

Should Legislators Vote for USA Freedom?

It’s our goal to try to explain legislation honestly, even if it means diving into the murky weeds of surveillance law. We don’t like to sugarcoat the failings of a bill, nor do we think it’s useful to trumpet reforms that are modest.

However, legislators and staffers often come to us with a binary: should they or shouldn’t they cast a vote for this bill. They need a yes or no answer, not just nuanced discussions about the pros and cons of the bill.

So, with that in mind: yes, legislators should vote for the USA Freedom Act if they have the opportunity to do so because, on balance, it enhances liberty and privacy over current law. Legislators should also strongly support amendments that will strengthen the bill and address the shortcomings we have outlined, and legislators may choose to tie their support for the bill to these amendments. If the bill is weakened substantially, legislators should vote against it.

While not as powerful as a comprehensive reform bill banning bulk surveillance under all legal authorities, passing USA Freedom is a step in the right direction.

As we consider the merits of USA Freedom we also need to keep our eye on the ball. Some members of Congress want to reauthorize the Patriot Act and renew the phone records program as it exists today, something we all must join together to fight. Tell Congress to oppose any attempt to rubber-stamp a reauthorization. Visit fight215.org to make your voice heard.

Via The Electronic Frontier Foundation

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Newsy Politics: “Patriot Act Reforms Could Cut Back NSA Snooping”

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