TIME Domestic Surveillance

Obama to Propose Ending NSA Phone Data Collection

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Md.
The National Security Agency headquarters building in Fort Meade, Md. Reuters

The White House is set to propose major changes to the NSA's oft-criticized bulk collection of data from millions of Americans' phone calls, in the Obama administration's most significant response yet to outrage over domestic surveillance

President Barack Obama is set to announce a new proposal to scale back one of the most sweeping and controversial domestic surveillance programs in U.S. history, according to multiple reports.

The proposal, which will be presented to Congress, would end the National Security Agency’s collection of vast amounts of data about U.S. phone calls, according to the New York Times, which first reported the plan.

The Obama proposal is the most significant White House effort yet to address the global furor that was sparked after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked reams of classified documents about the NSA’s secret snooping programs. The proposal would end the NSA’s bulk collection of so-called phone metadata, which includes the number the target called, when the call was made and how long the conversation lasted.

The NSA phone-metadata-collection program was part of a secret U.S. surveillance system that former President George W. Bush approved after the 9/11 attacks. It remained hidden from the public until the Snowden revelations.

Under the Obama proposal, the phone records would instead be retained by phone companies, including AT&T and Verizon. Those companies would not be required to retain the data for a longer period of time than they do now, the Times said. The proposed policy shift was not unexpected — it was one of the major recommendations of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which delivered its report in December.

(MORE: NSA Spying Scandal Could Cost U.S. Tech Giants Billions)

The timing of the White House proposal is also not a surprise. The current court order authorizing the NSA program — which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) must approve every three months — expires on Friday. The U.S. has decided to renew the NSA metadata-collection program for at least one more 90-day cycle, the Times said. The purpose of the program is to identify possible terrorist threats to the U.S., but government officials have offered scant evidence that the system has actually thwarted any major terrorist attacks.

On Tuesday, Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican, and Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Maryland Democrat, will introduce bipartisan legislation also designed to scale back the NSA’s bulk collection of phone metadata. The two lawmakers told the Washington Post on Monday that their goal is that their bill “can be the compromise vehicle that arrives at the President’s desk.”

The White House proposal differs from the Rogers-Ruppersberger legislation in key respects. The former would maintain FISC oversight with respect to individual phone-record orders, while the latter “would have the court issue an overarching order authorizing the program, but allow the NSA to issue subpoenas for specific phone records without prior judicial approval,” the Times said. Obama called on Congress in a press conference Tuesday to “pass the enabling legislation quickly,” saying his proposal would address many of critics’ concerns.

Instead of collecting and storing the phone records of millions of Americans, the White House proposes to obtain “individual orders” from the FISC that apply “only to records linked to phone numbers a judge agrees are likely tied to terrorism,” the Times reported. Under the current policy, the NSA holds the phone data for five years, under authorization by Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The proposal will not require that phone companies retain the data “longer than the 18 months that federal regulations already generally require,” the paper reported, after intelligence agencies determined that the impact of that change “would be small because older data is less important.”

Under the new system, the FISC would require the phone companies to “swiftly provide” phone records “on a continuing basis,” including data about “any new calls placed or received after the order is received,” the Times reported. The new system would also allow the U.S. to seek phone records for people “two calls, or ‘hops,’ removed” from the original number that is being scrutinized, according to the paper.

Lauren Weinstein, a tech-policy expert and privacy advocate, expressed guarded optimism about the White House proposal. “On its face, this sounds like a definite improvement over the status quo of the program, but the devil will be in the details,” Weinstein says.

Reached by TIME, representatives of Verizon and AT&T both declined to comment on the White House proposal. Earlier this year, AT&T and Verizon began issuing so-called transparency reports providing data on the number of law-enforcement requests for customer information that the company receives in the U.S. and other countries. Those reports do not separately disclose information about orders made under FISA, but instead combine such orders with other government requests.

TIME Smoking

Study: E-Cigarettes Do Not Help People Quit Smoking

Public health experts continue to debate whether e-cigarettes are a better option than smoking tobacco, or just an alternative way for smokers to inhale nicotine

A new, but relatively small, study suggests that e-cigarettes do not help smokers quit or reduce their use of conventional cigarettes.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine looked at self-reports from 949 smokers–88 who used e-cigarettes at the start of the study–and sought to determine whether e-cigarette use was linked to successfully quitting regular cigarettes, or at least lessening consumption at the end of a year.

The researchers found that this was not the case, and despite their small study size and time period, they concluded that their data adds to the current body of evidence that e-cigarettes do not help people quit smoking. “Regulations should prohibit advertising claiming or suggesting that e-cigarettes are effective smoking cessation devices until claims are supported by scientific evidence,” the study authors write.

Whether e-cigarettes are a better option than tobacco cigarettes, or just an alternative way for smokers to inhale nicotine, is a question public health experts continue to debate. Since e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, some argue they are the lesser of two evils, and that encouraging people to use nicotine products on the less dangerous side of the spectrum is ultimately better for them, and could even help them wean them off actual cigarettes. The problem is that e-cigarettes have not been around long enough for accurate research on their perceived dangers or benefits.

The study is not the first though to poke holes in the theory that e-cigarettes steer people away from standard cigarettes. Earlier this month, another study found that adolescents who use cigarettes are more likely to smoke other tobacco products and cigarettes. The study couldn’t confirm whether smoking e-cigarettes made teens more likely to smoke in general, but it showed it wasn’t a deterrent.

In a corressponding editorial, Dr. Mitchell Katz, deputy editor of JAMA Internal Medicine wrote: “Unfortunately, the evidence on whether e-cigarettes help smokers to quit is contradictory and inconclusive. [The researchers] increase the weight of evidence indicating that e-cigarettes are not associated with higher rates of smoking cessation.”

TIME Obamacare

Obamacare’s Last Week of Signups: What You Need To Know

March 31 is the date to circle on your health insurance calendar

We’re a few days away from the biggest Obamacare deadline yet.

President Barack Obama has been making a final push for health insurance enrollment because Monday, March 31 is the last day to buy individual health care plans under the Affordable Care Act. Most Americans must be enrolled in health coverage by next Monday or pay a penalty under the new law.

More than 5 million people have enrolled in private health insurance under the Affordable Care Act since open enrollment began on October 1, the Obama administration said last week. Millions of uninsured Americans were expected to receive coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act through private marketplaces and an expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor. However, as the deadline to sign up for HealthCare.gov looms, many will remain uninsured, the Associated Press reports.

Watch the video above for details.

TIME

5 Bernie Madoff Employees Convicted Of Fraud

Closing Arguments Begin in Trial of Five Ex-Madoff Aides
Daniel Bonventre, former director of operations at Bernard L. Madoff Investments Securities LLC, arrives at federal court in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Louis Lanzano—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Ponzi schemer's former secretary, director of operations for investments, and account manager were among those found guilty of fraud in a Manhattan court. The defense had argued that the employees were lied to and were in fact victims

Five of Bernie Madoff’s former employees, including his longtime secretary, were convicted Monday on fraud charges after a six month trial in a New York federal court, the Associated Press reports.

All of the defendants in the trial — who included Madoff’s secretary, director of operations for investments, account manger, and two computer programmers — were convicted of conspiracy to defraud clients, securities fraud, falsifying the books and records of a broker dealer. Prosecutors obtained at least one conviction on all 33 charges.

The defense argued during the trial that the employees were lied to and were in fact victims, losing tens of millions of dollars that they had invested with Madoff.

The jury deliberated for roughly 20 hours over two weeks before delivering its sentence. The trial was one of the longest in the Manhattan federal court’s history.

Madoff pleaded guilty to fraud charges in 2009 and is serving a 150-year prison term.

[AP]

TIME

Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush Promote Higher Education

It's at least the third time that the two likely presidential candidates found themselves together in the past year

Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, both potential contenders for their respective parties’ nomination for president in 2016, came together at the same event Monday to promote greater access to higher education.

Former Secretary of State Clinton, a Democrat married to former president Bill Clinton, and former Florida governor Bush, the brother and son of Republican presidents, represent two of the nation’s most prominent political families.

And while they didn’t appear together onstage, both spoke at the conference about the need to make quality higher education more affordable in the United States and more accessible around the world, the Associated Press reports. Clinton thanked Bush early in her speech and noted his commitment to education in office and in the private sector.

Bush, she said, is a person “who really focused on education during his time as governor in Florida, and who has continued that work with passion and dedication in the years since.” The pair reportedly chatted backstage at the event.

The Florida Republican and former North Carolina Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt organized the Globalization of Higher Education conference, which brings politicians and education experts together to discuss ways to improve access to higher education.

It’s not the first time they’ve rubbed shoulders since rumors of presidential runs began swirling, the AP reports. They both attended the dedication for the library of former President George W. Bush, Jeb’s brother last April, and last September Jeb Bush, chairman of the National Constitution Center, presented Hillary Clinton with the group’s Liberty Medal.

[AP]

TIME energy

The Afterlife of Oil Spills

Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup
Nearly 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill Chris Wilkins—AFP/Getty Images

Twenty-five years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, scientists are still reckoning with the ecological cost

On a shelf at my home, I have a small jar that contains a smear of crude oil. I dug it up on the shore of a small island in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in May of 2009, on a reporting trip for a story about the legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. That crude oil is more than 25 years old now, and its existence is a reminder of just how long lived the effects of a major oil accident can be. Years after the spill has been stopped, after the press has gone home, the crude oil released into a river or a sea will affect the biology of almost anything it touches—just as it continues to weigh on the people who live and work in the area fouled by crude.

That’s worth remembering as we observe the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill today. On Mar. 25, 1989, a tanker captained by Joseph Hazelwood ran aground on Alaska’s Bligh Reef, spilling nearly 11 million gallons (42 million liters) of crude oil into Alaska’s near-pristine Prince William Sound. The oil spread out to more than 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline, choking bird and sea life, and permanently damaging the region’s ecology. Even now, you can still find some of that oil on remote beaches in the Sound, preserved by the cold. As of 2010, just 12 of the 32 monitored wildlife populations, habitats and resource services affected by the spill were considered fully recovered or very likely recovered. The once-prosperous Pacific herring fishery still remains closed after the population of the fish crashed in the years following the spill. While much of the Sound has rebounded, it will never be the same—even a quarter century later.

The Exxon Valdez disaster was the biggest oil spill in U.S. history—until April 2010, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was destroyed in a well blowout, leading to an oil gusher that lasted 87 days and resulted in more than 200 million gallons (757 million liters) of crude flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. While much of the oil was either cleaned up in a response operation that cost billions of dollars or was broken down by bacteria in the warm Gulf waters, the ecological damage from the spill was major, and almost four yeas later, scientists are only beginning to gauge the cost to marine life.

Here’s one example: in a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and several universities assessed the impact of Deepwater Horizon oil on developing embryos of bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and amberjack, all commercially important fish species that spawn near the site of the accident. The research team exposed embryos taken from breeding facilities to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a toxic agent released by crude oil. In each tested species, PAH exposure—at levels the researchers said was realistic for the Gulf spill—was linked to abnormalities in heart function and defects in heart development. As the paper concluded:

Losses of early life stages were therefore likely for Gulf populations of tunas, amberjack, swordfish, billfish, and other large predators that spawned in oiled surface habitats.

The PNAS study isn’t the first to blame the BP oil spill for lingering problems with Gulf marine life; a study published earlier this month linked the spill to dwindling numbers of bottlenose dolphins Louisiana’s Barataria Ba. Nor will it be the last. But that hasn’t slowed the rush to keep drilling going in the Gulf of Mexico, a rush that BP has now been allowed to rejoin after initially being barred from participation in lease sales in the region. The British company won 24 out of 31 bids entered in an Interior Department offshore drilling lease sale held last week, paying more than $41 million for the right to explore oil and gas in the region. Altogether 1.7 million acres (.69 million hectares) off the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were opened up for new drilling. Despite evidence of the risks, nothing seems likely to stop operations in the Gulf.

As long as there is offshore drilling and marine transport of oil, the risks of accidents will exist. Just two days before the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, at least 168,000 gallons (636,000 liters) of oil spilled from a barge in Galveston Bay in Texas. The spill is blocking the bustling Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest seaways in the U.S., and threatens an environmentally sensitive bird sanctuary nearby. Given the small size of the spill, it won’t have the kind of major aftereffects seen in the Valdez and the BP dissters. But it’s one more reminder that as long as our economy remains so dependent on oil, there will always be the risk of another catastrophe that could linger on and on.

[Update: BP sent along a statement in response to the PNAS study—I'm including it below:

The paper provides no evidence to suggest a population-level impact on tuna, amberjack or other pelagic fish species in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil concentrations used in these lab experiments were rarely seen in the Gulf during or after the Deepwater Horizon accident. In addition, the authors themselves note that it is nearly impossible to determine the early life impact to these species. To overcome this challenge, it would take more information than what’s presented in this paper.

It's worth noting that the researchers mention in the paper how difficult it is to sample live but fragile yolksac larvae of big pelagic species like the bluefin tuna in the wild, which is the embryos used in the study were collected from breeding stations on land, not the Gulf itself.]

TIME Disease

Ohio Mumps Outbreak Spreads Beyond University Walls

Outbreak began in Ohio State University, but health officials in Columbus say virus is now affecting people with no links to the campus

An outbreak of mumps that has infected 56 people in Ohio has spread beyond Ohio State University, where it originated, and is now afflicting community members with no relationship to the university.

Among the 56 cases, Reuters reports that 40 are either Ohio State students, faculty, or people with connections to the campus. However, health officials in Columbus said Monday the most recent cases of the disease involve people who have no ties to the school, which makes the outbreak even more troubling.

Mumps, which causes painful swelling of the salivary glands, is a vaccine-preventable disease, and it’s believed that the outbreak could be tied to people who for whatever reason are not vaccinated. However, this is difficult to determine since many of the people infected did have at least one round of vaccinations for the disease. The vaccine for mumps requires two doses, and even with the full dosage, it is 88 percent effective, meaning it’s still possible for people with the vaccine to get infected.

Still, cases of mumps have dropped 98 percent since the vaccine was introduced in the 1960s, which underlines the success of vaccinations in preventing outbreaks of these rare diseases.

[Reuters]

TIME Economic Indicators

Poll: Washington D.C. and San Jose Residents Most Confident In Economy

Gallup poll has the capitals of tech and government neck and neck for most bullish on the state of the U.S. economy

Residents of the San Jose, Calif. and Washington D.C. metropolitan areas are the most confident in the country about the state and trajectory of the U.S. economy, according to a Gallup poll out Monday.

Gallup’s score for “economic confidence” is a composite of two metrics: how respondents feel about the current state of the economy, and how optimistic they are about the direction it’s heading. Though both D.C. and San Jose gave the state of the economy at present a negative rating overall, both cities—respectively the capitals of government and the tech industry—vaulted to the head of the pack due to their optimism about the economy’s trajectory. Other metro areas in the top five most economically confident are, in order, San Francisco, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Seattle.

The city with the gloomiest outlook on the state of the economy is Jacksonville, Fla., where residents said not only that things are pretty terrible but that they’re even more likely to get worse. Next cities down the list are Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Providence, R.I.

[Gallup]

TIME 9/11

Museum to Honor Victims of 9/11 Will Open May 21

Sept 11 Museum
Perimeter box columns from the World Trade Center, seen in the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum in New York on June 27, 2013. Bebeto Matthews—AP

A museum built near where the towers fell and dedicated to the memory of Sept. 11 victims will open to the public on May 21; for five full days before then, it will specifically accomodate the families of victims, survivors and rescue workers

A museum dedicated to the memory of those who died in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 will open to the public on May 21, officials announced Monday.

The five days before the public opening will be a dedication period, during which the museum will be open 24 hours a day so that families of the victims, survivors, rescue workers, and grieving first responders can visit the museum whenever they want. Organizers say the round-the-clock schedule is so they can accommodate mournful families, and is intended as a tribute to rescue and recovery personnel who worked around the clock in the aftermath of the attacks.

“We are honored that the first people to experience this Museum will be the men and women who came to our aid and protected us on 9/11, the families of the innocent victims killed that day, and the survivors who lived to tell the tale of an unimaginable horror so that we may learn from the past,” said former mayor and 9/11 memorial chair Michael Bloomberg. “Through its long commitment to educate future generations and to safeguard an important American history, building the Museum is in large part the answer to the violence of the 9/11 attacks. The stories of heroism, of valor and the unwavering spirit felt and witnessed on that day, and the ensuing months, will be told for years to come after the Museum’s doors open to visitors from around the world.”

Museum Director Alice Greenwald said the museum “provides a case study in how ordinary people acted in extraordinary circumstances, their acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity of spirit demonstrating the profoundly constructive effect we can have on each other’s lives by the choices we make, even in the face of unspeakable destruction.”

Tickets to the museum will be available March 26. Admission will be free on Tuesdays from 5 to 8pm, and will be always free for 9/11 families and rescue and recovery workers.

TIME Aviation

U.S. Navy Sends Black-Box Locator to Hunt for Flight 370

The Navy’s Towed Pinger Locator 25 trawls for sounds as deep as 20,000 feet.
The Navy’s Towed Pinger Locator 25 trawls for sounds as deep as 20,000 feet. © Phoenix International Holdings, Inc. 2014 All Rights Reserved www.phnx-international.com

The military is aiding in the international search for a jet missing more than two weeks

The U.S. Navy is sending one of the world’s best hearing aids to the southern Indian Ocean, ready to dispatch it to the depths in the hunt for the black boxes aboard missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The Navy’s Towed Pinger Locator 25 trawls for sounds like a fisherman trolls for fish, and kind of resembles a 30-inch, 70-pound, fishing lure. It’s towed behind a vessel traveling no faster than five knots, listening for pings from the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders that experts believe have ended up on the sea floor. Recovering those boxes and analyzing the data they contain is the best way to learn what happened aboard the flight, which disappeared March 8 with 239 people en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

“The Towed Pinger Locator has some highly sensitive listening capability so that if the wreck site is located, we can hear the black box pinger down to a depth of about 20,000 feet,” said Commander Chris Budde, a U.S. 7th Fleet operations officer. “Basically, this super-sensitive hydrophone gets towed behind a commercial vessel very slowly and listens for black-box pings.”

The acoustic signal of any pings is transmitted via cable to the towing ship and funneled into an oscilloscope or a signal-processing computer. Once found, the ship would make repeated tracks above its general location to pinpoint where it is.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser