The Cable

This Twitter-Loving Trekkie Is the NSA's Worst Enemy

Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, a 34-year-old Republican, has lots of opinions.

The correct name for Star Trek fans? "Trekkies" -- not "Trekkers." The latest installment of Captain America? A "fantastic" indictment of government surveillance. Using hashtags on Twitter? Soooo 2008.

But those aren't the beliefs that have put Amash in the cross-hairs of his fellow Republicans, who have called him a "wacko bird," an "egregious asshole," someone who "votes more with the Democrats than with the Republicans," and most recently, "al Qaeda's best friend in the Congress." Some GOP lawmakers have gone so far as to donate money to his primary opponent. Amash, in turn, uses Twitter and Facebook to call out other Republican lawmakers by name and accuse them of sacrificing core GOP beliefs for political gain.

The fight stems from Amash's uncompromising belief that the federal government has grown far too large and far too powerful, especially when it comes to national security. He has reserved particular fury for the National Security Agency (NSA), which he sees as an out-of-control spy agency that has run roughshod over the Constitution and the privacy rights of ordinary Americans. Amash wants to sharply rein in the NSA's powers, and -- to the surprise and consternation of many in his own party -- the young lawmaker may help determine the makeup of the historic NSA reform bill cobbled together by powerful lawmakers from both parties.

At the moment, Congress is closer than ever to passing far-reaching legislation that would end the spy agency's bulk collection of Americans' personal data. The USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), is backed by the White House and senior lawmakers in both parties. It was forged as a compromise between hawkish defenders of the NSA and prominent civil libertarians. But as it moves closer to a floor vote this month, both Republican and Democratic leaders are watching with anxiety as Amash contemplates whether to wage a scorched-earth revolt against the less-than-pure bill or to try to add modest amendments to the current legislation. Last year, Amash surprised observers by reaching across the aisle and winning more than 200 Republican and Democratic votes for an NSA reform provision that went much further than his own party's leadership was willing to go. He lost that fight, but gained credibility as a coalition-builder in the process. Amash has yet to telegraph his plans for the current bill, but he insists he won't accept cosmetic changes to the NSA's spying powers.

"If it looks like they want to move some of their pseudo-reforms through, then certainly we're going to stand up and fight against that," Amash said during an interview in his Washington office.

The long-delayed legislative effort to rein in the NSA overcame two significant hurdles last week with the passage of the USA Freedom Act in the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. Civil libertarians had long supported the bill because of its outright ban on the NSA's bulk data collection of Americans' phone records and its overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court, the court that oversees NSA surveillance activities.

Amash, an original co-sponsor of the bill, was one of a handful of lawmakers involved in drafting the legislation. But the bill has changed significantly on its way to the House floor, making it vulnerable to an insurrection by him and other hard-line civil libertarians. If he pushes back too hard, however, Amash will be written off by House leadership and lose any chance to work on the bill from the inside so it includes piecemeal reforms he cares about. The fundamental question he confronts is whether to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

"If Amash wants to go in heavy and has a predictably stringent red line, he's not going to get to play ball," warned a senior leadership aide.

Most complaints from civil liberties advocates about the revised USA Freedom Act center on a few key compromises. In its original version, the bill prohibited the government from gaining access to the content of Americans' data if collected in the process of targeting foreign terrorists, a technique known as "backdoor searches." The revised version allows for those types of searches to continue. The original version also included a provision for a special advocate to argue on the side of user privacy in significant cases before the FISA court. The revised version omits the special advocate provision and allows the government to search records up to two degrees, or "hops," away from a suspect pending approval by a judge.

"It clearly is not as pro-privacy as the original act, but it does make some improvements over current surveillance practices," said Amash's chief of staff, Will Adams. "We're exploring whether we can improve it on the House floor."

The fact that Amash even registers on the radar screen of powerful lawmakers at all is an oddity. The House of Representatives is a majority-driven institution, making it much less vulnerable to the whims of any individual lawmaker. Unlike the Senate, where a Ted Cruz or a Rand Paul can single-handedly torpedo bipartisan legislation, rogue lawmakers hold much less sway in the lower chamber. But Amash is not an army of one, as GOP leaders learned the hard way last year.

In the summer of 2013, following Edward Snowden's disclosures of the NSA's broad domestic spying operations, Amash made it a priority to defang the spy agency any way he could. He joined forces with Rep. John Conyers, a progressive Michigan Democrat, on an amendment to limit NSA data collection only to individuals under investigation for potential terrorism links. He then set out to build a critical mass of libertarian Republicans and progressive Democrats in support of the amendment, drawing up spreadsheets of potential swing voters and canvassing their offices.

Although fiercely opposed by House Speaker John Boehner, Amash managed to win support from more than 200 lawmakers for the amendment, forcing Boehner to allow a floor vote. Although the reworked provision ultimately lost by an excruciatingly close 12 votes, 205-217, the effort put Amash on the map as a major player in the surveillance debate and showed leadership the significant appetite for reform in both parties.

"People wouldn't even be talking about these reforms now if it wasn't for Amash's leadership on removing the NSA's bulk collection authorities last year," Rep. Jared Polis, a liberal Colorado Democrat, said in an interview.

"He rallied members of the Republican Party and people on our side of the aisle who shared his view," added Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). "It was a left-right coalition, and it came close to succeeding."

Since his entrance into the House in 2011, Amash has earned a reputation as the rightful successor to Ron Paul, the Texas iconoclast whose libertarian beliefs led him to vote against nearly every bill that came across his desk. Amash met Paul through his older brother David Paul, a pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Amash's hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In some ways, Amash shares the now-retired congressman's beliefs even more fully than his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has been trying to appeal to a wider audience as he gears up for a 2016 presidential run. Although both lawmakers have locked horns with GOP leadership, Amash seems to relish his public spats with top Republican brass even when it harms his standing in the party.

Following his vote against Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) 2012 budget plan -- Amash said it didn't reduce U.S. debt fast enough -- the GOP Senate Steering Committee stripped him of his committee assignments. Even then, the scolding did not moderate his behavior.

"If Speaker Boehner wants to come back to my district, he's not going to be met with very much welcome," Amash threatened after the decision.

By contrast, Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, has strengthened his associations with the GOP establishment, most significantly with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Although the two politicians initially worked against each other -- McConnell backed Paul's GOP challenger, Trey Grayson, in Kentucky's 2010 primary -- McConnell has since tried desperately to bury the hatchet, even hiring a former top Paul aide, Jesse Benton, to oversee his re-election campaign.

Though Amash has shown little interest in cozying up to the establishment in a similar way, he enjoys displaying his associations to both libertarian icons.

Just last week, the congressman tweeted out a mock Beatles' album cover that replaced the portraits of the Fab Four with those of Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and himself. (If you don't recognize the squinting, bespectacled lad in the bottom right, that's Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie, an enthusiastic libertarian foot soldier.)

Though proud to walk in both Pauls' footsteps, Amash says his uniquely contrarian persona plays to his advantage when building support for specific issues across party lines.

"I'm not that concerned with whether the leadership is upset with me or whether the president's upset with me," he said in an interview. "I think that actually helps me to build coalitions. People are not as cynical about my approach as they might be about other legislators."

But that approach is not without its consequences. A vengeful GOP establishment is currently pouring money into Amash's primary challenger, businessman Brian Ellis, ahead of Michigan's August contest. In recent weeks, Ellis has gotten sizable checks from Home Depot, Dow Chemical, and even fellow Michigan GOP lawmakers. One of Amash's most outspoken critics is Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. When asked about Amash's views on government surveillance, Rogers, who personally cut a check of $5,000 to Amash's opponent, accused him of willful ignorance.

"I've been disappointed in many members because they don't want to know the facts," Rogers told Foreign Policy. "It's dangerous when people care more about the brand of who they are instead of the substance. This is the front line of protecting the country."

Amash dismisses such attacks. "It's frightening and dangerous that there are members of Congress who want to ignore the Constitution," Amash said. "That's what we should really be concerned about."

The son of immigrants, Amash's father lived in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank in the 1950s before moving to West Michigan after a church sponsored his family's emigration. It was in Michigan that he met his wife, a Syrian immigrant, and built up a lucrative hardware business from the ground up. Justin, who has one younger and one older brother, earned a bachelor's degree and law degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. A member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, he and his wife, Kara, have three children.

From those humble beginnings, Amash finds himself grappling with his support for one of the most significant overhauls of the FISA court since the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978. But although the USA Freedom Act has some of his fingerprints on it, it is now a piece of legislation forged out of a compromise between national security hawks and doves -- a fact that is rankling some privacy advocates.

"The revised USA Freedom Act omits some of the most crucial provisions of the original bill," said Patrice McDermott, executive director of Open the Government, in a statement. Citing the government's liberal use of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify broad surveillance practices not intentionally authorized by Congress, McDermott said the bill would not guarantee that the bulk collection program has ended.

Lofgren, who worked with Amash closely during the surveillance reform debate last year, attempted to attach additional privacy protections in the USA Freedom Act in the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, May 7, but each amendment failed. In opposing the measures, lawmakers repeatedly cited the fragile deal forged with the House Intelligence Committee on the overall design of the bill.

It's unclear whether Boehner will attempt to block similar amendments when the bill arrives to the House floor. According to a senior GOP leadership aide, the speaker has not yet ruled out the idea of allowing last-minute changes. "We haven't closed the door to amendments," said the aide.

Although very little in Amash's career suggests a willingness to compromise on issues involving individual liberty and surveillance, those close to him have suggested a newfound pragmatism.

"Justin is much more effective now than he was just two years ago," said Republican Congressman Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina. "He's doing better and is starting to understand that not everything is worth shipwrecking things over."

If Mulvaney is right, Amash may not wind up going to the mat to radically transform the USA Freedom Act. If past is prologue, however, the libertarian firebrand may want to wage one last fight before the bill leaves the House. It's a decision that could determine the future of America's most powerful spy agency.

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The Cable

Congratulations, Mr. Director General. Now, Lawyer Up.

The United States and other global powers on Thursday elected Francis Gurry, an Australian national, to a second six-year term as the director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an influential United Nations agency charged with protecting patents around the world.

Gurry might want to wait to pop the cork off the champagne bottle.

The U.S. State Department is seeking to rally support for an independent investigation of Gurry, who has been dogged by numerous allegations of misconduct and mismanagement from current and former senior advisors. U.S. diplomats -- who resisted calls from Gurry's critics to postpone the election until an investigation was complete -- offered up congratulations to the Australian civil servant, while making it clear he would have to submit to an investigation. South Korea made an explicit request for an independent inquiry.

The move comes less than two months after one of the agency's deputy director generals, James Pooley, a former Silicon Valley lawyer who serves as the organization's top American official, filed a complaint accusing Gurry of engaging in multiple acts of "serious misconduct," including improperly steering a lucrative contract to an acquaintance. Gurry has denied the allegations in the past and declined to comment Thursday, May 8.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy: "We are aware of complaints made by Mr. Pooley, a senior WIPO official, and believe such complaints must be treated seriously and transparently. In that regard, the United States believes that a full, independent, and external investigation of all complaints is warranted and is in consultation with other member states towards that end."

The episode places two close military and intelligence allies at odds over the fate of Australia's most senior U.N. official. It also poses a test to Washington's commitment to good governance and accountability in the U.N. system. In addition to his WIPO post, Gurry was appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2012 to chair the High-Level Committee on Management, which is responsible for addressing the day-to-day operations of the U.N. system. "The United States is deeply committed to transparency and accountability in WIPO as in all international organizations, including whistleblower protections," the State Department official said.

In his acceptance speech Thursday in Geneva, Gurry underscored the depths of Canberra's support for his candidacy, specifically crediting Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade Minister Andrew Robb for leading the re-election campaign on his behalf. "I would like to thank all the member states for their confidence and trust," he said. "Throughout my first term, ambassadors and their colleagues have been extremely generous with their time and availability, very indulgent of my failings and shortcomings, and always willing to engage and to assist in overcoming difficulties."

Indeed, Gurry's tenure has been marked by controversy. The Australian civil servant, as detailed by Fox News, has angered Republican and Democratic members of Congress by selling computers and other high-tech equipment to North Korea and Iran without notifying the U.N. and opening new WIPO offices in Russia and China unilaterally.

More serious allegations of outright misconduct have swirled around him since October 2007, when anonymous sources who said they were part of a self-styled organization called the Watchdog for International Civil Service sent copies of three letters -- each addressed to Gurry -- to several senior WIPO officials, claiming to have obtained evidence of criminal wrongdoing on Gurry's part.

"We have a lot of information on you and your activities," according to one of the letters, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. In response, Gurry -- then WIPO's deputy director general and a leading candidate to head the organization -- filed a criminal defamation complaint with police in Geneva, where he was living.

In the course of the investigation, Carlotta Graffigna, a high-ranking WIPO staffer and early suspect, claimed that WIPO security officers secretly collected three items -- "a stapler, a box of cigarettes and a box of candies" -- from her office and illegally turned them over to the Swiss police, which subjected them to DNA testing, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy. WIPO security officers, she claimed in a Sept. 26, 2010, letter to WIPO's ethics office, also supplied Swiss police with stolen personal items -- including dental floss, lipstick, and adhesive tape -- from two other WIPO workers. At the time the objects were transferred to the Swiss police, all three WIPO employers enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Suspicion turned to Gurry, who, according to WIPO critics, had the most to gain because he had initiated the Swiss investigation in an attempt to clear his own name and identify his detractors.

For a while, the case largely blew over, and Graffigna reached a settlement with WIPO that required her not to discuss the matter. But it has never disappeared.

Miranda Brown, a former Australian diplomat who served as Gurry's strategic advisor, resigned from her job in November 2012, saying "I would have preferred to stay and do my job at WIPO; however, for reasons that need not be recited here, you have made that impossible."

Before she left, she requested an "investigation into the DNA theft and several other alleged misconduct by the Director General." But WIPO's internal watchdog, the Internal Audit and Oversight Division, declined to carry out an investigation. Brown has since filed a complaint with the International Labor Office Administrative Tribunal, saying WIPO's internal auditors lacked the independence needed to investigate the organization's leader. "The decision not to investigate was wrong," according to her complaint. "The facts underlying the request are compelling, and no reasonable person could have concluded that there was insufficient evidence to warrant an investigation."

In late 2013, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) raised concern about Gurry's leadership in a series of letters to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Australia's ambassador to the United States. Her concerns included what she claimed was WIPO's sale through a Chinese middleman of "high-end computers" to North Korea and Iran. Gurry, she noted, has dismissed American concerns on the grounds that WIPO "is not bound by the U.S. national law in this matter" even though an independent review commissioned by WIPO concluded: "we simply cannot fathom how WIPO could have convinced itself that most Member States would support the delivery of equipment to countries whose behavior was so egregious it forced the international community to impose embargoes, and where the deliveries, if initiated by the recipient countries, would violate a Member State's national laws."

But Australia's ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley, dismissed the allegations against Gurry, saying that WIPO had only provided North Korea and Iran with "standard office equipment, including workstations, laptops, printers, scanners with software designed to aid the implementation of WIPO programs and regulations." He also dismissed the other claims against Gurry as unfounded. "The notion that Dr. Gurry is involved in a scheme to illegally acquire DNA samples from WIPO employees is deeply alarming. Fortunately it isn't true," Beazley wrote in a Nov. 26, 2013, letter to Lofgren. "These are old claims with no new evidence attached to them. Events have been distorted, exaggerated, misrepresented and misconstrued to undermine Dr. Gurry's campaign. I think you can see Australia's confidence that there is no 'evidence of criminal wrongdoing' is soundly based."

Shortly after Gurry won re-election, Pooley came forward. In his April 2 complaint, which was first reported by Fox News, Pooley wrote: "I write to report what I believe is serious misconduct by WIPO's Director General, Francis Curry. Specifically, I draw your attention to (1) the taking of DNA from senior WIPO staff members without their knowledge or consent, in violation of fundamental human rights, as well as efforts to suppress evidence … (2) evidence of the corruption of a recent procurement that was redirected and awarded to an Australian company led by an acquaintance of Mr. Gurry, even though that company had not been selected in the competitive process."

Mark O'Brien, a lawyer for the Australian company, wrote in a letter to WIPO member states that the allegations "are totally baseless" and "grossly defamatory." The president of the company, it said, "has dealt with Mr. Gurry on very infrequent occasions in the course of policy negotiations. The report appears to base the allegation of friendship on the preposterous premise that both men are Australian."

But allegations have continued. On the eve of Gurry's re-election, one of Pooley's predecessors, an American businessman named Michael Keplinger, proposed postponing the election until Pooley's allegations had been fully investigated. "Although I was not aware during my tenure of much of the information that's documented in the report, I can assure you that Mr. Pooley's analysis of Mr. Gurry's conduct and motivations regarding the DNA affair is consistent with what I experienced of his behavior during the time I reported to him at WIPO," Keplinger wrote in a letter to key WIPO governments. "My purpose in writing is to urge you to commission an immediate investigation as suggested by Mr. Pooley. I cannot imagine that the member states can decide on extending Mr. Gurry's mandate without having the benefit of an independent investigation into what appears to be a very troubling record."

Photo by Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images