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PATRIOT Games: Can Leahy Pry Loose a Surveillance Court's Secrets? 

After an NSA contractor spills the beans on domestic spying, Bernie and his colleagues cry foul.

Bernie Sanders

Published June 12, 2013 at 11:29 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

There’s been no shortage of congressional outrage in the week since the Guardian exposed new details of the government’s expansive snooping into phone records and online networks.

But on Tuesday, at last, came the first significant legislative response.

A bipartisan crew of eight senators, including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), introduced a bill that would declassify certain legal opinions drafted by the government’s secret surveillance court.

Doing so, the bill’s backers say, would let the public know precisely how that court is interpreting and enforcing the USA PATRIOT Act and other surveillance laws. If the legislation were already law, they say, the Guardian’s scoops would have been old news by now.

“I am proud to join in this bipartisan legislative effort to increase openness and transparency so that we can shed further light on the business records program authorized by [the PATRIOT Act],” Leahy said in a statement.

The bill is in keeping with Leahy’s general approach to issues at the nexus of national security and civil liberties. While it wouldn’t exactly hang up the phone on the National Security Agency’s data mining, it would chip away at the culture of secrecy preventing American citizens from understanding the laws that govern them.

Leahy pushed for a similar measure last December, when the Senate debated — and ultimately approved — a five-year extension to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, which sets parameters for government eavesdropping. He also tried to limit that extension to three years and require the intelligence community’s inspector general to conduct a review of surveillance programs.

When all those amendments failed, Leahy voted against the bill’s reauthorization. His colleagues in Vermont’s congressional delegation, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), did the same.

But unlike Sanders and Welch, who in recent days have publicly criticized the NSA surveillance programs revealed by the Guardian, Leahy has stayed mum about whether he knew and approved of their existence. That’s because, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he’s taken part in highly classified briefings pertaining to the laws that govern them and wants to avoid spilling any highly classified beans.

Welch and Sanders aren’t nearly as constrained — and therefore aren’t nearly as restrained. While Welch called the programs “unchecked and intrusive searches” in a statement last week, Sanders called them “Orwellian” in an appearance on MSNBC Monday night.

“Kids will grow up knowing that every damn thing they do is going to be recorded somewhere in a file,” Sanders told host Chris Hayes.

Earth to Bernie: Kids are already doing that themselves — it’s called Facebook.

Sanders, who says he too will introduce legislation addressing government surveillance, has also been quick to remind the world that he was one of just 66 House members to vote against the PATRIOT Act back in 2001. Welch wasn’t yet in Congress.

Leahy and then-senator Jim Jeffords, on the other hand, were among the 99 senators who voted for it — though Leahy fought mightily to scale it back. And in the years since, his spokesman says, he’s consistently voted against its reauthorization.

Blowing Snow

Would Sen. Sanders, the archliberal son of a Polish immigrant, really vote against comprehensive immigration reform?

Well, he’s done it before — back in 2007, when a compromise between Senate Democrats and the Bush administration went down in a 46-53 defeat.

This time, says spokesman Michael Briggs, “He’s definitely maybe.”

Sanders has good reason to play coy. As the Senate launched a three-week floor debate on the bill Tuesday, its backers appeared shy of the 60 votes they needed to secure Senate passage and the 70 they desired to give the bill momentum heading into the GOP-controlled House.

In other words, they need Sanders’ vote. And Vermont’s junior senator knows that in the U.S. Senate, no one will pay you ransom unless he believes you’ll shoot the hostage.

So what are Sanders’ demands? Fewer guest-worker visas, which he contends “large multinational corporations” are using to import hundreds of thousands of foreign workers “to continue their effort to lower wages” in the U.S.

In a stem-winder speech on the Senate floor last week, Sanders sounded particularly peeved that American corporations would look abroad to fill jobs that he says should be going to American workers — such as busboys, lifeguards and, um, ski instructors.

“I can tell everyone that in the state of Vermont, we have a whole lot of young people who are very good at skiing and can teach skiing,” Sanders said during the speech. “We don’t need people from Europe to take those jobs away from young Americans.”

So much for pandering to the ski industry, like every other politician in the state!

Needless to say, Ski Vermont executive director Parker Riehle isn’t exactly riding in Bernie’s chairlift.

“There are not Vermonters going without employment at the ski areas because of this program. It’s just not happening,” Riehle says. “We’re just not the example that matches his rhetoric.”

According to Riehle, the use of foreign labor is actually declining on Vermont’s slopes. It peaked in 2007, when some 600 of the state’s 12,000 seasonal or year-round ski industry workers hailed from abroad. That number has since dropped by half, thanks to a down economy and dwindling visa quotas.

Contrary to Sanders’ assertion, Riehle says there is, in fact, a shortage of ski instructors in Vermont and that foreigners are hired for those jobs only after the local labor market is tapped out.

“It’s the last resort, no pun intended, for the areas to fill out the last 2 or 3 percent of their employee ranks,” he says.

Sanders doesn’t appear to buy the labor-shortage argument. Those who say there aren’t enough Americans to do the job, he argued in his floor speech, are really saying, “young American people are too lazy to work at these jobs.”

“I do not accept that. I truly do not accept it,” the senator continued. “I think it is a slap in the face not only to our young people, but to the many working people who do not have much in the way of an education and want to work so they can earn some money.”

Then again, not all guest-worker programs are created equal, at least not in Sanders’ eyes.

While Bernie looks askance at increasing most visa quotas, he says he favors a Leahy-authored measure in the immigration bill establishing a new agriculture visa that could allow Vermont dairy farms to hire migrant workers year-round, something they’re not presently able to do.

Why is Sanders OK with the dairy industry bringing in foreign labor and not the ski industry?

“The farmers can’t find enough Americans to fill those jobs,” Briggs explains.

But wait! What about that whole “slap in the face” thing?

“He’s been persuaded by the farmers in Vermont and elsewhere that it is valid in the ag industry and he doesn’t believe it’s valid in other industries,” Briggs continues.

Sounds like there’s at least one sacred cow in Vermont that Bernie is unwilling to take hostage.

Get Outta Dodge

Gov. Peter Shumlin tried his level best last week to put his real estate troubles behind him.

After retaining former Vermont attorney general M. Jerome Diamond as his lawyer, the governor made a public offer to sell back a 16-acre property he bought last year from an East Montpelier neighbor who now regrets the deal.

But if a clean resolution is what Shummy wants — and it is — a new development Tuesday indicates that may be a long time coming.

As WCAX-TV and the Vermont Press Bureau first reported, Shumlin’s neighbor, Jeremy Dodge, has hired Brady Toensing and Joy Karnes Limoge to represent him. Toensing, a Charlotte resident who practices in Washington, D.C., is best known to Vermont politicos for representing former lieutenant governor Brian Dubie in a campaign-finance lawsuit stemming from his 2010 campaign against — wait for it! — Shumlin.

Perhaps signaling that he’s ready to play hardball, Toensing characterized Shumlin in a statement to reporters as “a sophisticated and shrewd businessman, a businessman who is also the most powerful person in Vermont, represented by one of the best lawyers money can buy.”

Oh, snap!

Said lawyer, Mr. Diamond, responded a couple hours later with a statement of his own saying that Shumlin “is happy to meet Mr. Dodge’s request that the property be sold back to Mr. Dodge for what the governor has paid out of pocket.”

So what’s next in Shummy’s game of Dodgeball?

You can expect the governor’s people to charge that Toensing’s involvement proves the Dodge affair is nothing more than a political hit job. They’ll seek to reverse the narrative of Shumlin as predator and cast him as the victim of — in the enduring words of Hillary Clinton — a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Will it work? Quite possibly.

But it’s not all good news for Shummy. After all, if Dodge had engaged some local do-gooder attorney, he’d likely settle with the gov forthwith and the case would be closed. That’s not likely to be case with Toensing. Given his lawyerly chops and political pedigree, you can expect the guy to string this fight out as long as possible — to inflict maximum damage on the gov and get the most for his client.

And that’s very bad news for Shumlin.

Media Notes

Paging Ron Burgundy! There’s an anchorman (and woman) shake-up at WCAX-TV.

After four years co-anchoring Channel 3’s 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts, Darren Perron and Kristin Kelly are ditching the late shift to spend more time reporting. They’ll continue to anchor at 6, but they’ll be replaced at 11 by cops and courts reporter Jennifer Reading and education reporter Keith McGilvery.

“Darren and Kristin would like to do more reporting,” says news director Anson Tebbetts. “They miss it, they love it. But the schedule doesn’t really allow that if they’re coming in at three and leaving at midnight.”

Meanwhile, business reporter Gina Bullard will join Kristin Carlson and Mike McCune in anchoring “The :30” — the station’s 5:30 p.m. interview show, on which (disclosure alert!) Seven Days writers appear three nights a week. WCAX also recently hired Boston native and University of South Florida grad Melissa Howell as a general assignment reporter.

In other media news, the Winooski Bridge, an online community news site that published twice monthly in English, French and Arabic, has ceased publication — at least for now. Editor and publisher Guy Page says he hopes to find someone willing to take the reins. But having moved to Barre last fall, he says he’s no longer the “guy” to do it.

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz was part of the Seven Days news team from 2012 to 2020. He served as political editor and wrote the "Fair Game" political column before becoming a staff writer.


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