Ringside Seat: Can You Track Me Now?

There was once a time when cell phones, like beepers before them, were really only needed by doctors and drug dealers. But in a short time they became ubiquitous, and today nearly nine in ten Americans own mobile phones. That's a lot of phones and a lot of calls, but worry not—the U.S. government is working hard to track each and every one.

That's the logical conclusion of a report out today from the British newspaper The Guardian, which revealed an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court under which Verizon, the largest U.S. cell phone carrier, had to turn over records on every single one of its customers to the National Security Agency. Verizon was required to hand over records of all the calls that came through its network—who called who, when the call was made, how long the call lasted, and the geographic locations of the two parties when the call was made. Though the order the paper obtained applied only to Verizon, it would be strange if similar ones weren't issued for other carriers as well.

It's all perfectly legal, and it isn't entirely new. The record-gathering is authorized by the USA Patriot Act, passed just days after September 11, 2001, which gave the government sweeping new powers to undertake all kinds of surveillance of American citizens. And we learned in 2006 that the Bush administration was gathering just these kinds of phone records. But this is the first time it's been made public that the Obama administration is going just as far as its predecessor did, if not farther.

This won't be a partisan issue, because most Republicans are in favor of the government having broad surveillance powers, so long as you invoke the magic word "terrorism," and at least some Democrats are backing the administration. Today, Dianne Feinstein came out with her Intelligence Committee co-chair, Republican Saxby Chambliss, to defend the program. "I understand privacy," she said. "Senator Chambliss understands privacy. We want to protect people's private rights. And that's why this is carefully done." Forgive us for wondering what's all that "careful" about getting the phone records for tens of millions of Americans who are under no suspicion of doing anything wrong.

It was just two weeks ago that President Obama delivered a major speech effectively declaring an end to the "war on terror." Turns out, maybe not so much.

So They Say

When one hears the word meditation, it conjures an image of Maharishi Yoga talking about finding a mantra and striving for nirvana. . . . The purpose of such meditation is to empty oneself. . . . [Satan] is happy to invade the empty vacuum of your soul and possess it. That is why people serve Satan without ever knowing it or deciding to, but no one can be a child of God without making a decision to surrender to him. Beware of systems of spirituality which tell you to empty yourself. You will end up filled with something you probably do not want.

Virginia lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson, explaining why yoga is evil

Daily Meme: More Data on Guns Please

  • A panel of experts handed the federal government a list of priorities it should be scrambling to address in the wake of the massacres at Newtown, Aurora, and Oak Creek. 
  • Their chief recommendation? We need better data on guns. 
  • As the report notes, "Basic data about gun possession, distribution, ownership, acquisition, and storage are lacking ... Data that do exist are weak, making it virtually impossible to answer fundamental questions about occurrence and risk factors, or to effectively evaluate programs intended to reduce violence and harm."
  • All in all, it's an odd moment for gun policy. 
  • On the one hand, gun-control advocates are spending more and more money on pushing their initiatives. 
  • The gun-control group launched by Gabby Giffords sent out an e-mail blast yesterday urging Chris Christie to appoint a senator who shares Frank Lautenberg's stance on background checks. 
  • New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is spending serious dough in state capitols with his super PAC "Mayors Against Illegal Guns." 
  • The group just started a $400,000 ad blitz against Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire senator who voted against background check legislation.
  • Cities in California are working on passing tougher gun restrictions
  • But, as passionate as gun-control organizers are, an equally large number of anti-gun control groups have, pardon the punpulled out the big guns to stop any gun legislation. 
  • But, there's still a lot of hope for gun control. Besides the new data recommendations, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are scoping out the possibilities of reviving the gun debate on the Hill.
  • Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal is offering gun-control amendments for the immigration bill (They won't get passed, but keeping the issue in the news counts for something).
  • An anti-gun-control bill in Louisiana is floundering.
  • Alec MacGillis goes so far as to say the time of gun control is here, while the NRA is heading gently into the good night.
  • And even if the time of gun control isn't here quite yet, history shows that if politicians—especially presidents—keep an issue in the spotlight long enough,action tends to happen, albeit sometimes quite far down the road.

What We're Writing

  • What happens when a state gets more red and blue at the same time? In the third piece of the “Solid South” series, Chris Kromm and Sue Sturgis take a look at what’s happening in North Carolina. 
  • Whether people love him, hate him, trust him or find his civil liberties record disturbing, Steve Erickson writes that no one is capable of talking dispassionately about President Barack Obama.

What We're Reading

  • Additional reinforcements are heading down to Guantanamo given the growing hunger strike. The force-feedings being conducted in response to the hunger strike, it should be noted, are in violation of the Geneva conventions.
  • If you think a movie where George Clooney played a Mexican Romney deserves all the Oscars ... it's time to weep at what could have been on Arrested Development's season four.
  • Molly Redden explains how the Amish are getting fracked.
  • Today, Obama visited North Carolina, the pesky (and politically confused) state that got away in 2012
  • Students from Harper High—the school immortalized in the This American Lifeepisode on gun violence—got to visit the White House and talk with Obamayesterday.
  • Why do young people become atheists? A new study posits some answers.
  • The food at national parks is about to get a lot healthier.

Poll of the Day

The majority of Americans think same-sex marriage is going to happen whether they support it or not, according to a new poll released by the Pew Research Center. Out of the 1,504 adults surveyed, 72 percent said they believe same-sex marriage will be legally recognized everywhere. Even 59 percent of people opposed to the idea think it will happen, and for the first time in Pew history, 51 percent of those polled are in favor of same-sex marriage.

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