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Updated: 5 years 16 weeks ago

MuckReads Podcast: The Story Behind ‘The Child Exchange’

September 16, 2013 - 2:00pm

Last week, Megan Twohey of Reuters published a major investigation about how American families use Internet message boards to abandon difficult children adopted from other countries. Twohey showed how exasperated families use Yahoo and Facebook groups to find new parents for the children they swore to take care of. And far too often, these children end up in homes where the guardians have not been approved to take care of children, where they can be sexually abused or put in surroundings that are dangerous for their well-being.

ProPublica reporter Marshall Allen sat down with Twohey to get the story behind the story of piecing "The Child Exchange" together. Asked to describe how she got started, Twohey said, "One of the most valuable things I think about this project is I worked with our database team. We basically did a deep dive on one of the Yahoo groups where this - it's called re-homing - activity takes place. And we scraped all 5,000 messages going back five years and built a database where we were able to quantify what was going on. We logged every single offer of a child that was being made over a 5-year period and we found that on average a child was being offered up once a week."

Twohey added, "It's interesting to note too that the term ‘re-homing’ was first used to describe people seeking new owners for their pets. And some of the ads read remarkably similar to the ads that you'd see for people trying to find a new home for their pet. Some of the ads would describe kids as being obedient, eager to please, or talk about them being pretty."

Read the five-part investigation at and you can listen to this podcast on iTunes and Stitcher.

Categories: Media, Politics

Government Standards Agency “Strongly” Suggests Dropping its Own Encryption Standard

September 13, 2013 - 1:07pm

Following revelations about the NSA’s covert influence on computer security standards, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, announced earlier this week it is revisiting some of its encryption standards.

But in a little-noticed footnote, NIST went a step further, saying it is “strongly” recommending against even using one of the standards. The institute sets standards for everything from the time to weights to computer security that are used by the government and widely adopted by industry.

As ProPublica, the New York Times, and the Guardian reported last week, documents provided by Edward Snowden suggest that the NSA has heavily influenced the standard, which has been used around the world.  

In its statement Tuesday, NIST acknowledged that the NSA participates in creating cryptography standards “because of its recognized expertise” and because NIST is required by law to consult with the spy agency.

“We are not deliberately, knowingly, working to undermine or weaken encryption,” NIST chief Patrick Gallagher said at a public conference Tuesday.

Various versions of Microsoft Windows, including those used in tablets and smartphones, contain implementations of the standard, though the NSA-influenced portion isn’t enabled by default. Developers creating applications for the platform must choose to enable it.

The New York Times noted earlier this week that documents provided by Snowden show the spy agency played a crucial role in writing the standard that NIST is now cautioning against using, which was first published in 2006.

The NIST standard describes what is known as an “elliptic curve-based deterministic random bit generator.” This bit of computer code is one way to produce random numbers that are the cornerstone of encryption technology used on the Internet. If the numbers generated are not random but in fact predictable, the encryption can be more easily cracked.

The Times reported that the Snowden documents suggest the NSA was involved in creating the number generator.

Researchers say the evidence of NSA influence raises questions about whether any of the standards developed by NIST can be trusted.

“NIST's decisions used to be opaque and frustrating,” said Matthew Green, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. “Now they're opaque and potentially malicious. Which is too bad because NIST performs such a useful service.”

Cryptographers have long suspected the standard in question was faulty. Seven years ago, a pair of researchers in the Netherlands authored a paper that said the random number generator was insecure and that attacks against it could “be run on an ordinary PC.” A year after that, in 2007, two Microsoft engineers flagged the standard as potentially containing a backdoor.

Following the criticism, the standard was revised in 2007 to include an optional workaround.

The NSA has long been involved in encryption matters at the standards institute.

"NIST follows NSA's lead in developing certain cryptographic standards," a 1993 Government Accountability Office report noted.

A 2002 law mandates that NIST set information security standards and lists the NSA merely as one of several other agencies that must be consulted.

Asked how often standards are reopened, NIST spokesperson Gail Porter, said, “It’s not frequent, but it does happen.” She added that it would be “difficult to give you an exact number of times.”

Asked whether Microsoft would continue to use the encryption standard in some of its software, a spokesperson said the company "is evaluating NIST’s recent recommendations and as always, will take the appropriate action to protect our customers."

The NSA declined to comment.

Categories: Media, Politics

Everything We Know About What Data Brokers Know About You

September 13, 2013 - 11:21am

Sept. 13: This story has been updated. It was originally published on March 7, 2013.

We’re continuing to learn new details about how the American government is collecting bulk records of citizens’ communications -- from demanding that a telephone company hand over the daily records of “all telephone calls in its systems,” to collecting an unknown number of emails, instant messages and Facebook messages.

It’s not clear how much information about ordinary people’s conversations the National Security Agency has gathered. But we do know there’s a thriving public market for data on individual Americans -- especially data about the things we buy and might want to buy.

Consumer data companies scoop up large amounts of consumer information about people around the world and sell it, providing marketers details about whether you're pregnant or divorced or trying to lose weight, about how rich you are and what kinds of cars you drive. But many people still don't know data brokers exist.

Regulators and some in Congress have been taking a closer look at this industry, and are beginning to push the companies to give consumers more information and control over what happens to their data. The prominent data broker Acxiom recently launched, a site that allows you to review some of the information the company has connected to your name -- and, potentially, edit and update it as well.

Here's a look (originally published in March) at what we know about the consumer data industry.

How much do these companies know about individual people?

They start with the basics, like names, addresses and contact information, and add on demographics, like age, race, occupation and "education level," according to consumer data firm Acxiom's overview of its various categories.

But that's just the beginning: The companies collect lists of people experiencing "life-event triggers" like getting married, buying a home, sending a kid to college — or even getting divorced.

Credit reporting giant Experian has a separate marketing services division, which sells lists of "names of expectant parents and families with newborns" that are "updated weekly."

The companies also collect data about your hobbies and many of the purchases you make. Want to buy a list of people who read romance novels? Epsilon can sell you that, as well as a list of people who donate to international aid charities.

A subsidiary of credit reporting company Equifax even collects detailed salary and paystub information for roughly 38 percent of employed Americans, as NBC news reported. As part of handling employee verification requests, the company gets the information directly from employers.

Equifax said in a statement that the information is only sold to customers "who have been verified through a detailed credentialing process." It added that if a mortgage company or other lender wants to access information about your salary, they must obtain your permission to do so.

Of course, data companies typically don't have all of this information on any one person. As Acxiom notes in its overview, "No individual record ever contains all the possible data." And some of the data these companies sell is really just a guess about your background or preferences, based on the characteristics of your neighborhood, or other people in a similar age or demographic group.

Where are they getting all this info?

The stores where you shop sell it to them.

Datalogix, for instance, which collects information from store loyalty cards, says it has information on more than $1 trillion in consumer spending "across 1400+ leading brands." It doesn't say which ones. (Datalogix did not respond to our requests for comment.)

Data companies usually refuse to say exactly what companies sell them information, citing competitive reasons. And retailers also don't make it easy for you to find out whether they're selling your information.

But thanks to California's "Shine the Light" law, researchers at U.C. Berkeley were able to get a small glimpse of how companies sell or share your data. The study recruited volunteers to ask more than 80 companies how the volunteers' information was being shared.

Only two companies actually responded with details about how volunteers' information had been shared. Upscale furniture store Restoration Hardware said that it had sent "your name, address and what you purchased" to seven other companies, including a data "cooperative" that allows retailers to pool data about customer transactions, and another company that later became part of Datalogix. (Restoration Hardware hasn't responded to our request for comment.)

Walt Disney also responded and described sharing even more information: not just a person's name and address and what they purchased, but their age, occupation, and the number, age and gender of their children. It listed companies that received data, among them companies owned by Disney, like ABC and ESPN, as well as others, including Honda, HarperCollins Publishing, Almay cosmetics, and yogurt company Dannon.

But Disney spokeswoman Zenia Mucha said that Disney's letter, sent in 2007, "wasn't clear" about how the data was actually shared with different companies on the list. Outside companies like Honda only received personal information as part of a contest, sweepstakes, or other joint promotion that they had done with Disney, Mucha said. The data was shared "for the fulfillment of that contest prize, not for their own marketing purposes."

Where else do data brokers get information about me?

Government records and other publicly available information, including some sources that may surprise you. Your state Department of Motor Vehicles, for instance, may sell personal information — like your name, address, and the type of vehicles you own — to data companies, although only for certain permitted purposes, including identify verification.

Public voting records, which include information about your party registration and how often you vote, can also be bought and sold for commercial purposes in some states.

Are there limits to the kinds of data these companies can buy and sell?

Yes, certain kinds of sensitive data are protected — but much of your information can be bought and sold without any input from you.

Federal law protects the confidentiality of your medical records and your conversations with your doctor. There are also strict rules regarding the sale of information used to determine your credit-worthiness, or your eligibility for employment, insurance and housing. For instance, consumers have the right to view and correct their own credit reports, and potential employers have to ask for your consent before they buy a credit report about you.

Other than certain kinds of protected data — including medical records and data used for credit reports — consumers have no legal right to control or even monitor how information about them is bought and sold. As the FTC notes, "There are no current laws requiring data brokers to maintain the privacy of consumer data unless they use that data for credit, employment, insurance, housing, or other similar purposes."

So they don't sell information about my health?

Actually, they do.

Data companies can capture information about your "interests" in certain health conditions based on what you buy — or what you search for online. Datalogix has lists of people classified as "allergy sufferers" and "dieters." Acxiom sells data on whether an individual has an "online search propensity" for a certain "ailment or prescription."

Consumer data is also beginning to be used to evaluate whether you're making healthy choices.

One health insurance company recently bought data on more than three million people's consumer purchases in order to flag health-related actions, like purchasing plus-sized clothing, the Wall Street Journal reported. (The company bought purchasing information for current plan members, not as part of screening people for potential coverage.)

Spokeswoman Michelle Douglas said that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina would use the data to target free programming offers to their customers.

Douglas suggested that it might be more valuable for companies to use consumer data "to determine ways to help me improve my health" rather than "to buy my data to send me pre-paid credit card applications or catalogs full of stuff they want me to buy."

Do companies collect information about my social media profiles and what I do online?


As we highlighted last year, some data companies record — and then resell — all kinds of information you post online, including your screen names, website addresses, interests, hometown and professional history, and how many friends or followers you have.

Acxiom said it collects information about which social media sites individual people use, and "whether they are a heavy or a light user," but that they do not collect information about "individual postings" or your "lists of friends."

More traditional consumer data can also be connected with information about what you do online. Datalogix, the company that collects loyalty card data, has partnered with Facebook to track whether Facebook users who see ads for certain products actually end up buying them at local stores, as the Financial Times reported last year.

Is there a way to find out exactly what these data companies know about me? (Updated 9/5/2013)

Not really -- although that’s beginning to change.

You have the right to review and correct your credit report. But with marketing data, there's often no way to know exactly what information is attached to your name — or whether it's accurate.

Most companies offer, at best, a partial picture.

In September, Acxiom debuted, which allows to you review and edit some of the company’s marketing data on you, by entering your name, address, birth date and the last four digits of your social security number.

The Federal Trade Commission’s Julie Brill tweeted that “more data brokers should follow” Acxiom’s example. But the effort received mixed reviews from users, privacy advocates and government regulators, the New York Times reported.

Previously, Acxiom only let customers review a smaller slice of the information the company sells about them, including criminal history, as New York Times reporter Natasha Singer described last year. When Singer requested and finally received her report in 2012, all it included was a record of her residential addresses.

Other companies also offer some access. A spokeswoman for Epsilon said it allows consumers to review "high level information" about their data — like whether or not you’ve purchased "home furnishings" merchandise. (Requests to review this information cost $5 and can only be made by postal mail.)

RapLeaf, a company that advertises that it has "real-time data" on 80 percent of U.S. email addresses, says it gives customers "total control over the data we have on you," and allows them to review and edit the categories it associates with them (like "estimated household income" and "Likely Political Contributor to Republicans").

How do I know when someone has purchased data about me?

Most of the time, you don't.

When you're checking out at a store and a cashier asks you for your Zip code, the store isn't just getting that single piece of information. Acxiom and other data companies offer services that allow stores to use your Zip code and the name on your credit card to pinpoint your home address — without asking you for it directly.

Is there any way to stop the companies from collecting and sharing information about me?

Yes, but it would require a whole lot of work.

Many data brokers offer consumers the chance to "opt out" of being included in their databases, or at least from receiving advertising enabled by that company. Rapleaf, for instance, has a "Permanent opt-out" that "deletes information associated with your email address from the Rapleaf database."

But to actually opt-out effectively, you need to know about all the different data brokers and where to find their opt-outs. Most consumers, of course, don't have that information.

In their privacy report last year, the FTC suggested that data brokers should create a centralized website that would make it easier for consumers to learn about the existence of these companies and their rights regarding the data they collect.

How many people do these companies have information on?

Basically everyone in the U.S. and many beyond it. Acxiom, recently profiled by the New York Times, says it has information on 500 million people worldwide, including "nearly every U.S. consumer."

After the 9/11 attacks, CNN reported, Acxiom was able to locate 11 of the 19 hijackers in its database.

How is all of this data actually used?

Mostly to sell you stuff. Companies want to buy lists of people who might be interested in what they're selling — and also want to learn more about their current customers.

They also sell their information for other purposes, including identity verification, fraud prevention and background checks.

If new privacy laws are passed, will they include the right to see what data these companies have collected about me?


In a report on privacy last year, the Federal Trade Commission recommended that Congress pass legislation "that would provide consumers with access to information about them held by a data broker." President Barack Obama has also proposed a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that would give consumers the right to access and correct certain information about them.

But this probably won't include access to marketing data, which the Federal Trade Commission considers less sensitive than data used for credit reports or identity verification.

In terms of marketing data, "we think at the very least consumers should have access to the general categories of data the companies have about consumers," said Maneesha Mithal of the FTC's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection.

Data companies have also pushed back against the idea of opening up marketing profiles for individual consumers' inspection.

Even if there were errors in your marketing data profile, "the worst thing that could happen is that you get an advertising offer that isn't relevant to you," said Rachel Thomas, the vice president of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association.

"The fraud and security risks that you run by opening up those files is higher than any potential harm that could happen to the consumer," Thomas said.

!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0];if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src="//";fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document,"script","twitter-wjs");How do data brokers impact you? Join Lois and other tech reporters for a discussion of data brokers and privacy this Friday at 1 p.m. ET. You can tweet us your questions with #MyDataChat.

Categories: Media, Politics

Discussion: How Can the U.S. Better Regulate and Improve Elder Care?

September 12, 2013 - 1:00pm

Live chat with Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica: Where do we go when we can no longer care for ourselves?

As America's population ages, assisted living facilities have emerged as an attractive option for people too ill or frail to live on their own. But is this growing industry – which now houses nearly 750,000 elderly Americans – capable of adequately caring for the seniors in their facilities? 

A recent investigation by ProPublica and PBS FRONTLINE found evidence that the assisted living industry's biggest player, Emeritus Senior Living, allowed the drive for profits to trump quality care. State authorities have often responded to fatal mistakes in Emeritus facilities and those run by other assisted living chains by handing out meager fines – or no fines at all. An upcoming report by the Center for Investigative Reporting has also found serious shortcomings in California's regulatory system.

So what's the best way to regulate elder care facilities? Are current laws falling short? And what can you do to ensure your loved one gets the best and safest care possible?

Join  ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting on Thursday, September 12 at 11 a.m. PT/ 2 p.m. ET, where reporters Ryan Gabrielson and A.C. Thompson will be available to answer your questions about how to improve regulation and better protect America's elderly. If you can't make the chat, you can also leave your questions and comments in advance in the box below.

Key Takeaways:

  • Several residents are happy with their care in assisted living facilities. But the resident population has gotten "more ill and frail than ever before," according to reporter A.C. Thompson, and regulators don't seem to have kept up with the progression. In the course of our reporting, we found cases in which a person with dementia died after drinking toxic dishwashing liquid, cases of jumping or falling from windows and numerous instances in which people died as a result of violence. "If roughly nine percent of the people in assisted living are unhappy, well," said Thompson, "that is a fairly large number."
  • For years, no one outside the California Department of Public Health monitored regulators' activity, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting's Ryan Gabrielson. His latest report found that for decades, the state's health department neglected hundreds of cases of abuse at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. They then dismissed the cases with little investigation. 
  • Though Gabrielson and Thompson haven't seen much voluntary change from assisted living facilities, California lawmakers are beginning to toughen penalties. State senator Ed Hernandez says the $150 fine for deaths in California assisted living is too low. 
  • If you're making decisions about a loved one's care, research problem caregivers in advance. Gabrielson recommends the federal health care exclusions list, state licensing and abuse search registries and the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. UT San Diego has advice on searching for an assisted living facility. We also have seven questions you should ask during your search. 

Related reading: If you like this chat, you may also be interested in our list of seven questions to ask when searching for assisted living, our 4-part investigation into Emeritus Senior Living and FRONTLINE’s film on the assisted living industry.

Categories: Media, Politics

From Russia With PR

September 12, 2013 - 9:43am

Today, Vladimir Putin wrote an op-ed about Syria in the New York Times. The piece was placed by the public-relations giant Ketchum, Buzzfeed reported. On Nov. 16, 2012, we explored how Ketchum placed pro-Russia op-eds in American publications by businesspeople and others without disclosing the role of the Russian government. Ketchum's latest public filing says it was paid $1.9 million by Russia for the six-month period ending May 31, 2013. It received another $3.7 million for its work for Russian energy giant Gazprom over the same period. Here is our original report.

Several opinion columns praising Russia and published in the last two years on CNBC’s web site and the Huffington Post were written by seemingly independent professionals but were placed on behalf of the Russian government by its public-relations firm, Ketchum.

The columns, written by two businessmen, a lawyer, and an academic, heap praise on the Russian government for its “ambitious modernization strategy” and “enforcement of laws designed to better protect business and reduce corruption.” One of the CNBC opinion pieces, authored by an executive at a Moscow-based investment bank, concludes that “Russia may well be the most dynamic place on the continent.”

There’s nothing unusual about Ketchum’s work on behalf of Russia. Public relations firms constantly peddle op-eds on behalf of politicians, corporations, and governments. Rarely if ever do publications disclose the role of a PR firm in placing an op-ed, so it’s unusual to get a glimpse behind the scenes and see how an op-ed was generated.

What readers of the CNBC and Huffington Post pieces did not know — but Justice Department foreign agent registration filings by Ketchum show — is that the columns were placed by the public-relations firm working on a contract with the Russian government to, among other things, promote the country “as a place favorable for foreign investments.”

In at least one case, a Ketchum subcontractor reached out to a writer and offered to place his columns in media outlets. The writer, Adrian Pabst, a lecturer in politics at the University of Kent, said that his views were his own and that he was not influenced or paid by Ketchum.

A spokesman for CNBC, which published the pieces on the Guest Blog section of its website, declined to comment. A Huffington Post spokesman said the column placed by Ketchum did not violate the site’s policy.

Ketchum spokeswoman Jackie Burton told ProPublica that when the firm corresponds with experts or the media on behalf of Russia, “consistent with Ketchum’s policies and industry standards, we clearly state that we represent the Russian Federation.”

Russia, often criticized for human rights abuses and corruption, paid handsomely for the public-relations work. From mid-2006 to mid-2012, Ketchum received almost $23 million in fees and expenses on the Russia account and an additional $17 million on the account of Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant, according to foreign agent filings.

Op-ed editors interviewed by ProPublica said they work to include full disclosure of relevant financial interests or conflicts — or decline to run pieces that read like advertorial.

“People write op-eds because they have agendas. Separating out what’s an ethical agenda from an unethical agenda is really tough,” says Sue Horton, op-ed editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Horton said the role of the Russian government’s public-relations firm in placing the CNBC and Huffington Post op-eds "absolutely seems like something the reader would want to know.”

The op-eds placed by Ketchum for Russia, according to the filings, are:

  • A March 2010 CNBC piece by Peter Gerendasi, then managing partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers Russia, that praises the government of then-President Dmitry Medvedev for its “strategic priorities [of] diversification, innovation, promoting small business, supporting families and strengthening the country's financial system so that it can provide the investment capital that will enable business to grow and people to realize their potential.” Gerendasi declined to comment on the piece and PricewaterhouseCoopers said it did not pay Ketchum to place the piece and declined to comment further.
  • An April 2010 CNBC piece by Kingsmill Bond, then chief strategist at the Moscow investment bank Troika Dialog, that ran under the headline “Russia—Europe's Bright Light of Growth.” It called Russia possibly “the most dynamic place on the continent” for investors. Bond, now at Citigroup, told ProPublica he could not recall Ketchum’s role in the piece.
  • A September 2010 Huffington Post piece, titled “President Medvedev's Project Of Modernization,” by Pabst, the University of Kent academic. While acknowledging human rights and corruption problems, the thrust of Pabst’s op-ed was praise for Medvedev’s “transformational vision for Russia's domestic politics and foreign policy.” Pabst told ProPublica he was contacted by a Ketchum subcontractor, Portland Communications, and that he was not paid to write the piece. The piece, as well as another he wrote for a web site run by Ketchum, “reflect my own ideas and arguments,” he said in an email.
  • A January 2012 CNBC piece by Laura Brank, the head of the Russia practice for the international law firm Dechert. Brank praised the Russian government for working to overcome the perception of an inhospitable investment climate “through the implementation and enforcement of laws designed to better protect business and reduce corruption.” Brank did not respond to requests for comment.

While Ketchum maintains it always identifies its client when dealing with the media, the 2010 email sent by Ketchum to Huffington Post pitching the Pabst column did not mention that Russia was the firm’s client. (See the full email.)

“Below is a piece from Adrian Pabst, a leading Russia scholar in Europe,” wrote then-Ketchum Vice President Matt Stearns, who is now at UnitedHealth Group.

Ketchum says that Stearns had in previous correspondence identified Russia as his client to the Huffington Post editor, including to set up "a blog on the editor’s site for a member of the Russian government." The company did not provide that correspondence.

Huffington Post spokesman Rhoades Alderson said the site has a policy requiring bloggers to disclose any financial conflicts of interest related to the issue they are writing about, but Pabst did not violate the policy.

“The job of our blog editors is to make sure all of our posts add value for our readers,” Alderson said in a statement. “Part of that is making judgment calls about the transparency of each blogger's motive, even in cases when there is no technical violation of the disclosure policy. A submission by a PR firm raises flags but is not automatically disqualified if the blog adds value and is in keeping with our guidelines.”

Placement of op-eds is a standard part of the influence game, but it’s rare for readers ever to find out who is behind the curtain.

In 2011, top public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller came under criticism after it asked a blogger to author an op-ed criticizing Google’s privacy standards. Burson was working on a contract for Facebook at the time.

Public-relations firms have also been known to write op-eds and have them placed under the byline of a third party, and even to pay experts to write favorable op-eds. There’s no evidence Ketchum paid any of the authors of the Russia op-eds or that it ghost-wrote them.

Update: This post has been updated with more detail on Ketchum's correspondence with Huffington Post.

Categories: Media, Politics

For Brooklyn Prosecutor, a Rare Reversal at the Polls

September 11, 2013 - 11:41am

After 24 years in office, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes went down in defeat Tuesday night in New York City’s Democratic primary.

In the end, both those who admired Hynes and those who had come to vilify him can likely now agree on one thing: He had simply stayed in office too long.

It seems inarguable, after all, that the known perils of comfortable incumbency – complacency, arrogance, worse – played some role in Hynes’s defeat. Such accusations had been at the heart of what proved to be the successful campaign of Kenneth P. Thompson, a former federal prosecutor who will now become the first African-American district attorney in Brooklyn’s history.

"The Democratic voters of the county today decided that there should be a change in this office and its direction," Hynes said in a concession speech Tuesday night.

Hynes had come into office in 1990 as a civic champion, a special state prosecutor who had investigated the notoriously corrupt nursing home industry and who had won convictions against members of a white mob who chased a black man to his death in Howard Beach, Queens. He exits with what many regard as a record of innovation, but also with what many had come to see as a record of troubled prosecutions and cronyism and personal vendettas.

The New York Daily News, a reliable backer of Hynes over the decades, endorsed Thompson, asserting that Hynes had presided over an array of “miscarriages of justice.”

Hynes's ouster gives rise to a number of things worth considering:

1. Pure appreciation of how rare such a defeat is. Not since 1955 had an incumbent district attorney been unseated in New York City by way of the ballot box. In Brooklyn, the last time an incumbent prosecutor was removed via the vote came in 1911. That’s not a typo: 1911.

Richard Brown in Queens has been in office since 1991. Robert Johnson in the Bronx has been the borough’s top prosecutor since 1989. Robert Morgenthau served as Manhattan district attorney for nearly 35 years before retiring at age 89.

"There is something unique about the district attorney's office that makes the power of incumbency far more powerful than in any other race," Guy V. Molinari, the legendary Staten Island politician, once told the New York Times. "People somehow feel that changing the person in charge of law enforcement somehow would make life easier for the bad guys, the criminals. When it comes to law enforcement, people don't want to disturb the status quo."

2. What about the idea of term limits? There are states and counties around the country where term limits have been imposed on local prosecutors. But the two referenda that placed term limits on locally elected officials in New York City exempted district attorneys.

“I have really mixed feelings about the question of term limits for prosecutors,” said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor of law at Columbia University. “DAs have a tendency to get entrenched. And I’m not sure that leads to the exercise of the kind of zeal and good judgment that we expect of people with such powers. That said, I’m not sure more politics and more elections is the solution.”

The notion of term limits faces particular challenges in New York, and the saga of the efforts by voters on Long Island to impose term limits on a local prosecutor is instructive.

In 2001, voters in Nassau County appeared to have spoken: No district attorney could serve longer that 12 consecutive years in office. Term limits, the voters made clear in a referendum, ought to be imposed not only on those who enact laws – the county legislators - but on those charged with enforcing them.

Just last month, however, New York state’s highest court ruled that Nassau County voters had no authority to limit the terms for their district attorney. Local district attorneys, whether in Nassau County or Brooklyn, were in certain respects officers of the state, and only the state could determine how long they could remain in office.

There is thus little chance of term limits for district attorneys in New York being adopted anytime soon. Term limits for state officials has gained no traction over the years, and most experts agree the legislators are unlikely to adopt laws limiting their time in office.

“It’s clear to me the best way to address the question of prosecutors being in office too long would be for them to, at some point, agree to step aside,” said Richman, the Columbia professor. “It’s also clear to me that’s never going to happen.”

Categories: Media, Politics

Public Universities Ramp Up Aid for the Wealthy, Leaving the Poor Behind

September 10, 2013 - 11:00pm
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This story was co-published with The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Shauniqua Epps was the sort of student that so many colleges say they want.

She was a high achiever, graduating from high school with a 3.8 GPA and ranking among the top students in her class. She served as secretary, then president, of the student government. She played varsity basketball and softball. Her high-school guidance counselor, in a letter of recommendation, wrote that Epps was “an unusual young lady” with “both drive and determination.”

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Epps, 19, was also needy.

Her family lives in subsidized housing in South Philadelphia, and her father died when she was in third grade. Her mother is on Social Security disability, which provides the family $698 a month, records show. Neither of her parents finished high school.

Epps, who is African-American, made it her goal to be the first in her family to attend college.

“I did volunteering. I did internships. I did great in school. I was always good with people,” said Epps, who has a broad smile and a cheerful manner. “I thought everything was going to go my way.”

At first, it looked that way.

Epps was admitted to three colleges, all public institutions in Pennsylvania. She was awarded the maximum Pell grant, federal funds intended for needy students. She also qualified for the maximum state grant for needy Pennsylvania students.

None of the three schools Epps was admitted to gave her a single dollar of aid.

To attend her dream school, Lincoln University, Epps would have had to come up with about $4,000 per year, after maxing out on federal loans — close to half of what her mother receives from Social Security. It was money her family didn’t have, she said.

Public colleges and universities were generally founded and funded to give students in their states access to an affordable college education. They have long served as a vital pathway for students from modest means and those who are the first in their families to attend college.

But many public universities, faced with their own financial shortfalls, are increasingly leaving low-income students behind — including strivers like Epps.

It’s not just that colleges are continuously pushing up sticker prices. Public universities have also been shifting their aid, giving less to the poorest students and more to the wealthiest.

A ProPublica analysis of new data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that from 1996 through 2012, public colleges and universities gave a declining portion of grants — as measured by both the number of grants and the dollar amounts — to students in the lowest quartile of family income. That trend has continued even though the recession hit those in lower income brackets the hardest.

The Decline in Grants to Low-Income Students

Portion of institutional grants given to students in the lowest and highest income quartiles.


 Students in the lowest quartile of income
 Students in the highest quartile of income Source: ProPublica analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education National Postsecondary Student Aid Study

Attention has long been focused on the lack of economic diversity at private colleges, especially at the most elite schools. What has been little discussed, by contrast, is how public universities, which enroll far more students, have gradually shifted their priorities — and a growing portion of their aid dollars — away from low-income students.

State schools are typically considered to offer the most affordable, accessible four-year education students can get. When those schools raise tuition and don’t offer more aid, low-income students are often forced to decide not just which college to attend but whether they can afford to attend college at all.

“The most needy students are getting squeezed out,” said Charles Reed, a former chancellor of the California State University system and of the State University System of Florida. “Need-based aid is extremely important to these students and their parents.”

There’s no data on the number of needy but qualified students who are “squeezed out” and don’t make it onto four-year college campuses. But what is clear is that while the number of needy students has been growing, state schools have not kept up.

Over roughly two decades, four-year state schools have been educating a shrinking portion of the nation’s lowest-income students, according to an analysis of Pell-grant data by Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the nonprofit Pell Institute. The task of educating low-income students has increasingly fallen to community colleges and for-profit schools.

Epps’ top choice, officially known as The Lincoln University, is about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, and was one of the nation’s first historically black colleges. Founded in 1854 to serve African-Americans excluded from other colleges, the school became a public institution in the early 1970s, when the state legislature deemed its mission to be “completely compatible with the needs of the Commonwealth.”

All of the school’s own aid typically goes toward athletic or merit-based scholarships, regardless of students’ needs. In the 2009-10 budget, for instance, most of the roughly $3 million in institutional aid went to four specific “merit-based” scholarships — and the rest to athletics, international students, and study abroad, according to data supplied by Lincoln. The only need-based aid available to students is through separate donor-supported scholarships, some of which are earmarked for needy students, said university spokesman Eric Webb.

Aid given based on merit or other factors could still go to needy students, but that doesn’t appear to be happening much at Lincoln.

Data made available by the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success show that 84 percent of the school’s grant dollars in the 2009-10 school year did not go to meeting students’ needs. (The data does not include athletic scholarships and certain other forms of aid.)

At Epps’ second choice, Millersville University of Pennsylvania, two-thirds of aid dollars in 2010-11 went to students who had no documented need for it, according to the latest data available. (East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, the third school that accepted Epps, did not provide a breakdown of institutional grant aid.)

Why have public universities across the nation shifted their aid?

“For some schools, they’re trying to climb to the top of the rankings. For other schools, it’s more about revenue generation,” said Don Hossler, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University at Bloomington.

To achieve these goals, schools use their aid to draw wealthier students — especially those from out of state, who will pay more in tuition — or higher-achieving students, whose scores will give the colleges a boost in the rankings.

Private colleges have been using such tactics aggressively for some time. But in recent years, many public colleges have sought to catch up, doing what the industry calls “financial-aid leveraging.”

The math can work like this: Instead of offering, say, $12,000 to an especially needy student, a school might choose to leverage its aid by giving $3,000 discounts to four students with less need, each of whom scored high on the SAT, who together will bring in more tuition dollars than the needier student.

Those discounts are often offered to prospective students as “merit aid.”

Despite its name, “merit aid isn’t always going to the very best students,” Hossler said. “It’s an intentional strategy to help offset the loss of state support.”

Hossler knows this world firsthand. For years, he carried out such strategies as vice chancellor for enrollment services at Indiana University.

“One of my charges was to go after what I would call pretty good out-of-state students,” he said. “Not valedictorians, not the top of the class. Students who you didn’t have to give thousands and thousands of dollars to in order to get them to enroll.”

Indiana University is not alone in thinking about financial aid this way. Consultants who work with schools on financial-aid strategies said they’ve seen an uptick in interest from public universities in recent years, with many focused on generating more revenue.

“When public [universities] come to us individually now, they won’t admit it, but they’re all looking for the same thing — smart students who can pay,” said an industry consultant who asked not to be named.

Another industry consultant, Mary Piccioli of Scannell & Kurz, said many of her firm’s public-school clients are looking to use financial aid “to positively impact the bottom line.”

College officials often argue that attracting students with more resources means they’ll have more aid to redistribute to those in need.

“There’s certainly some truth to that,” said Donald Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education, who has researched institutional-aid patterns extensively. “But I don’t think that’s really the motivating behavior for many institutions. The more dominant motivating behavior is interest in high-achieving students, which will help them with institutional prestige.”

Epps, apparently, didn’t generate that sort of interest.

She was in her high school’s computer lab, checking her email, when she saw the message from Lincoln University laying out her financial aid package: a mix of state and federal money but nothing from Lincoln.

“Once I saw it, I knew it wasn’t the amount that I needed,” Epps said. “Right away I knew it.”

Shauniqua Epps laughs with one of her counselors, Christina Santos of Philadelphia Futures. Epps attributes a lot of her success to the program, which helps low-income students get into and finish college. (Andrew Renneisen for ProPublica)

Epps had been getting guidance from Philadelphia Futures, an organization that helps low-income high-school students get into and complete college. When she went through the cost calculations with a coordinator there, it became clear: The money simply didn't add up.

At first, Epps said, she blamed herself for not qualifying for aid. She felt like a failure.

“I was kind of upset because I felt as though I worked so hard,” she said. “I kept thinking how I’m not a good test taker.”

Epps had scored a combined SAT score of 820 on math and critical reading. In fact, that’s solidly in the middle of Lincoln’s score distributions for many years, according to data reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

But what Epps didn’t know is that the school had committed to “continuously improving its SAT and GPA averages for incoming cohorts” — as language found in a strategic planning document put it. She also didn’t know that the school had been spending the majority of its financial aid on students who would help bring up those averages — regardless of whether they needed the money.

“To attract top students to your institution, you have to be able to offer them a competitive scholarship package,” said Lincoln University President Robert Jennings. “That’s usually a full-tuition scholarship, that’s a private room sometimes or laptop computer, or a whole bunch of other perks. That’s what schools do. All schools do it.”

Rather than giving small discounts to many students, as many colleges do, Lincoln focuses on giving free rides to top scorers – as a Lincoln admissions flyer lays out.

The strategy seems to have worked. Lincoln University has raised its scores in recent years. In 2002, half of Lincoln’s incoming freshmen scored between a 360 and 460 on the math section of the SAT. In 2012, half of students scored between 410 and 490.

The boost in scores has been no accident, according to Jennings. He said it was a mandate from the Board of Trustees.

“They wanted to increase the SAT averages of students coming to Lincoln,” Jennings said.

And what about students who may have once been a natural fit but aren’t hitting the higher scores? The school still wants to serve some of them — “because of our historical mission,” explained Jennings. But Lincoln has also increasingly been “trying to steer that lower tier of students — students who need much more help — into community colleges,” he said.

Jennings doesn’t see this as a departure from the school’s mission to provide public access. “Absolutely not,” he said. “That’s why you have community colleges. They, too, are public institutions, and we have built collaborative relationships with them.” He added that the school recently launched a campaign to raise more money for scholarships, some of which will go to providing more need-based aid.

Like Lincoln, both Millersville University and East Stroudsburg University — the two other colleges that accepted Epps — have created strategic planning documents that include language reflecting a desire to move up academically.

In a 2010-15 strategic planning document, East Stroudsburg University outlined the goals of becoming “more selective in each new year” as well as fostering “strategic alignment of financial aid” to better attract top students.

“High-achieving and access are not mutually exclusive,” said spokeswoman Brenda Friday. “As such, we look for and recruit students who present both. We also recruit these groups separately. There are funding possibilities available for both groups of students.”

East Stroudsburg and other regional public colleges are in a tough spot. Many don’t have very much aid to give, and most serve a higher percentage of needy students than more prestigious public flagship universities, which have more money from endowments, research and fundraising. It’s a common phenomenon in higher education – students with less money relegated to institutions with less money.

In Pennsylvania, as in most states, public higher education has faced steep cuts, especially since the most recent recession. Over the last five years, the state has cut funds for higher education by 18 percent. At public institutions, that’s worked out to about $2,000 less in state and local support per student — a 32 percentage-point drop, according to data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

“All the arrows point in a direction that shows what we are out doing now is raising revenue. The old business model has sort of broken down,” said Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute and formerly the head of state higher-education boards and commissions in Montana, Washington and California.

“There have probably been no winners from all of this,” Callan said. “But the biggest losers were those who were disadvantaged on the front end.”

In high school, Epps went by the nickname “Neeks” with most of her friends. They were a mixed group. Some, like her, fostered hopes of attending college. Others just wanted to finish school and get a job.

Though she loved high school, Epps said that looking back she realizes that despite her own efforts, she didn’t get the best education.

About a third of the students at her high school didn’t graduate. After she left, the school was among roughly two dozen shuttered by the chronically underfunded School District of Philadelphia.

“On a couple of levels, systems are failing these students,” said Ann-Therese Ortiz, who worked with Epps as director of pre-college programs at Philadelphia Futures. Low-income high-school students could put in the same effort as their better-resourced counterparts, but “even with the same effort, it simply doesn’t yield the same fruit. And then there’s limited access to the same opportunities, because they’re not receiving the same educational foundation that really opens those doors.”

Those disadvantages can also show up in test scores. A substantial body of research shows that SAT scores are strongly correlated with family income.

“How do you separate merit from privilege?” asked Jerome Lucido, a professor and executive director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice. “Merit needs to be tied to mission, not just who got a higher test score. We already know that has a direct correlation with family income.”

But the SAT and other tests are still crucial to how publications such as U.S. News & World Report and Barron’s formulate college rankings, which are widely regarded as measures of prestige.

Not surprisingly, colleges are constantly working to move up the lists. A prospective student flipping through Barron’s 1995 college-rankings guide would have found about 90 public institutions in the top three tiers of competitiveness and more than 170 in the less competitive or non-competitive tiers. In the 2013 guide, that top tier has grown by more than 40 colleges — about 46 percent — and the bottom tier has shrunk by 60.

“The whole system is constantly moving up, going upstream to get better and better students, and get students who can pay,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “It all looks great for the press release. But you’re systematically leaving people behind.”

Carnevale, who has authored many studies analyzing this shift, likens the state of higher education to “hospitals for healthy people,” competing for the easiest to treat, most lucrative patients, rather than taking on the cases of those who stand to benefit the most. “The question is, are you trying to reach down or not?”

Schools might argue they are — in a way.

Many state schools have in recent years struck what are called “articulation agreements” — partnerships with community colleges that make it easier for community-college students to transfer to a four-year school. In the last two years, Lincoln University has established such agreements with 11 community colleges.

But even with improved transfer pathways, there’s still an inherent risk for students like Epps who “undermatch,” or don’t attend the most selective school they can get into. Low-income, minority and first-generation students frequently undermatch, research shows, and in doing so, they often end up at institutions with less support and far lower graduation rates.

Without any aid from Lincoln or the other colleges that accepted her, Epps weighed her options and chose a different route. She recently completed her first year at the Community College of Philadelphia — a school where about half of full-time freshmen don’t return for a second year.

“In a way, four-year colleges are asking two-year colleges to do the dirty work of selecting who’s worthy of a four-year college,” the Pell Institute’s Tom Mortenson said. In doing so, four-year colleges are not “taking on the responsibility from the beginning when they’re freshmen and making a real commitment to these students.”

But colleges — even those with an explicit public mission — have mounting incentives to avoid students like Epps. Carnevale points to the dawning of what’s known as the “accountability movement” — an effort by states to reform higher education by tying funding for public colleges to student outcomes and graduation rates. Last month, President Barack Obama announced that the federal government would also be moving in a similar direction — and hopes to eventually tie federal aid to certain performance measures.

Unless policymakers build in some incentives to take on more students at the margins, the accountability movement could drive schools further away from low-income and minority populations, which have lower graduation rates overall, Carnevale said. “The whole logic of this industry — and the reform of it as well — excludes low-income and minority students.”

While colleges strive to enroll wealthier and better-performing students, the demographics of the nation’s high-school graduates are moving in a different direction: As a group, tomorrow’s high-school graduates will be more racially diverse and more low-income than today’s.

“There is a significant misalignment. And I think the misalignment’s going to continue to grow,” said David Tandberg, an assistant professor of higher education at Florida State University who previously worked in the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

“The public really, really benefits from a first-generation student going to college. All sorts of wonderful outcomes come from that,” Tandberg said.

A more educated workforce has widespread benefits: It leads to more earning power for those who graduate, a stronger tax base for the state, and greater potential for economic growth in the future.

Public universities have the task of “balancing institutional striving with the public’s needs,” Tandberg said, which “are often two very different things.”

Epps still remembers going out and buying a new button-down shirt, slacks and dress shoes the night before her high-school graduation. She remembers the nervousness she felt the next morning, and the tinge of sadness.

“I was going to miss my friends. We had been together for four years, and we were all going in different directions,” she said. “I didn’t know how life was going to turn out.”

At graduation, in her white cap and gown, she was the mistress of ceremonies, introducing each of the speakers and making sure the ceremony flowed. She read out the theme of the year’s graduation, a rephrasing of a Thoreau quote: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

She’s certainly trying. Community college started up again last week. Epps has already signed up for a full schedule of six classes.

A year from now, she hopes to transfer, finally, to a four-year state school and eventually to get a bachelor’s degree. She’s thinking she might want to study accounting.

Jonathan Lin contributed research to this article.

Categories: Media, Politics

Johns Hopkins and the Case of the Missing NSA Blog Post

September 9, 2013 - 5:58pm

Sept. 10: This post has been updated.

Citing concerns about linking to classified material, Johns Hopkins University asked a professor this morning to remove a blog post discussing  last week’s revelations about the NSA’s efforts to break encryption. The post had linked to government documents published by ProPublica, the Guardian, and the New York Times.  

Several hours later, after computer science professor Matthew Green tweeted about the request, the university reversed itself.

Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins, which is short drive from the NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade, works closely with the spy agency.

The university’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which employs about 5,000 people, does many projects with the NSA. 

According to the lab’s website, “APL staff working with NSA are engaged in strategic planning, development of enterprise and program architectures, conducting quantitative analysis to support engineering decisions, development of engineering processes, and formulation of the governance structures for the work in the new Technology Directorate (TD).”

The website also notes that the lab “completed a strategic study that analyzed NSA’s global information technology infrastructure to determine the top locations for the large-scale data centers.”

Green said on Twitter that he had “been told” that someone from the Applied Physics Laboratory had first flagged his blog post.

Asked about the Applied Physics Laboratory’s role, Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said, “We are still tracing the path of this event, which all exploded into our notice over the past couple of hours. So I don’t think we’re ready yet with an answer on that.”

In an earlier statement, O’Shea said: “The university received information this morning that Matthew Green’s blog contained a link or links to classified material and also used the NSA logo. For that reason, we asked Professor Green to remove the Johns Hopkins-hosted mirror site for his blog.”

He continued: “Upon further review, we note that the NSA logo has been removed and that he appears to link to material that has been published in the news media. Interim Dean Andrew Douglas will inform Professor Green that the mirror site may be restored.”

Green removed the post from his university site but it remained mirrored on Google’s blogger service. Green has since removed the agency’s logo from the post on his blog.

An expert in the field of cryptography, Green was quoted in the story published by ProPublica and the New York Times.

In his blog post, Green linked to a document that outlines the NSA’s SIGINT Enabling Project, a program focused on subverting encryption products. The document is marked Top Secret and was part of the cache taken by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Green added in the post that he has not seen documents beyond the ones published with the story last week. 

Update Sept. 10: This afternoon Matthew Green received an apology from the dean who had asked him to remove the NSA blog post, Andrew Douglas of the Hopkins engineering school:

I write to apologize for any difficulty I caused you yesterday over the post on your blog.  I realize now that I acted too quickly, on the basis of inadequate and – as it turns out – incorrect information.  I requested that you take down the post without adequately checking that information and without first providing you with an opportunity to correct it.

As an academic and as a member of the faculty at Johns Hopkins for 30 years, I am wholly supportive of academic freedom and keenly aware of its centrality to our enterprise.  It is for this reason that I attached the 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Moreover, as interim dean of the Whiting School of Engineering, I am also aware of the contributions you are making to your field of information security and of the relevance of your comments to the important public debate that is now under way.

I am sorry that my request to you yesterday may have, in some minds, undeservedly undercut your reputation as a scholar and scientist.  I am also sorry if I have raised in anyone’s mind a question as to my commitment to academic freedom.  I am pleased that we were able to correct the error quickly.

I hope that you understand that my motivation – again, based on inadequate information – was to protect the university and you from legal consequences.  I look forward to discussing your work with you, as you suggested yesterday.

Separately, a Hopkins spokesman confirmed to ProPublica that someone from the Applied Physics Laboratory, which works closely with the NSA, had originally flagged Green’s post.

“[T]he federal government was not involved,” said spokesman Dennis O’Shea in an email. “The blog post originally was spotted by someone at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. A message was sent from a staff member at APL to a staff member at the Homewood campus calling attention to the post. That message may have been understood as a request for action, though I am told it was intended only as an FYI. The Homewood staff member called the post to the attention of the dean. The dean wrote to Professor Green, and you know the rest.”

Categories: Media, Politics

Inside a New York Drug Clinic, Allegations of Kickbacks and Shoddy Care

September 9, 2013 - 10:43am
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It didn’t take long for Lillian Imbert to conclude that her outpatient drug treatment program wasn’t helping her recovery. Fellow patients appeared to nod out in group therapy sessions that she found repetitive and shallow. They begged her to sell them her clean urine to fool the clinic’s weekly drug tests. The clinic itself was dingy and run down, and her counselors seemed harried trying to juggle heavy caseloads. Interactions with them were perfunctory. Outside the clinic, she said, a man she believed to be a patient openly sold drugs to those arriving for counseling.

Imbert said she desperately wanted to transfer to a program that took recovery more seriously. But she couldn’t. With rental assistance from the city of New York, she was living in a “sober home” — a place where indigent alcoholics and addicts typically reside four to a room while they undergo treatment. Imbert said her landlord set the rule: Either she went to a specific clinic, New York Service Network (NYSN) in Brooklyn, or he’d evict her. Seeing no other option, Imbert complied.

“I felt trapped,” Imbert said. “Most of the counselors were just going through the motions.”

A ProPublica examination of NYSN and the taxpayer-financed system that sustains it shows that Imbert’s experience isn’t unique. In New York, a lack of affordable housing gives sober-home landlords extraordinary power over their residents, who often are forced to attend specific outpatient treatment programs that can be of dubious quality. It’s a system that victimizes not only alcoholics and addicts — making an already challenging recovery more difficult — but taxpayers who pick up the tab.

Outpatient addiction treatment for the poor has become a mainstay of the social safety net, costing the federal, state and local governments $6.7 billion in 2009, the most recent figure available. The money pays for an estimated 1.5 million admissions a year, nearly three-fourths of them to outpatient programs like NYSN’s, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

As Medicaid coverage expands under the new health reform law, millions more people are expected to become eligible for treatment. They’ll be entering a system that many experts say is loosely regulated, rife with unskilled providers and open to fraud and abuse. As the Columbia study notes, the success rate is low: Of those who enter outpatient care, only two in five complete treatment.

In Massachusetts, authorities have won convictions against sober-home employees who were sending residents to get drug tests at a company that paid kickbacks to the homes. In South Florida, a federal task force last year prosecuted halfway house operators who accepted illicit payments for sending patients to clinics for unneeded procedures. And in July, California halted payments to 16 centers amid reports by CNN and the Center for Investigative Reporting about phony billing.

Oversight of outpatient centers is mainly left to states, which typically perform inspections and paperwork audits but don’t necessarily delve deeply into clinic operations. Patient outcomes are self-reported by clinics, and counselors often lack medical training and are poorly paid. Clinics generally are compensated on a fee-for-service basis, creating an incentive to bill for as many visits as possible.

Some clinics “are just preying on people’s desperation,” said Susan Foster, director of policy research at the Columbia center. Foster served as the principal investigator for the center’s 2012 report on the state of U.S. addiction treatment, which found “widespread system failure in health care service delivery, financing, professional education and quality assurance.”

The case of Imbert, supported by her medical records and interviews with other patients and current and former clinic employees, provides a rare look at the inner workings of New York’s indigent drug and alcohol treatment system and the close relationships between sober homes and clinics.

When it comes to New York Service Network, former employees have filed complaints with regulators alleging falsification of records, padding of counseling sessions or payment of kickbacks to secure a steady stream of patients. Their claims track with some of Imbert’s experiences as a patient over five months, and with records in her patient file describing counseling sessions that she said never occurred.

Lazar Feygin, the doctor who owns NYSN, adamantly denied paying kickbacks in exchange for patient referrals. He also disputed allegations by Imbert and former employees, who said counseling records were sometimes fabricated so NYSN could justify its billings to the state. “My reputation is crystal clear,” Feygin said in an interview with ProPublica. “Why am I in this business? Because I like it,” he said. “I want to help people. I want to treat people as much as I can.”

NYSN, housed in an unassuming brick building along a quiet street of single-family homes, is one of about 500 outpatient programs in the state. New York Medicaid paid claims totaling nearly $437 million for outpatient drug treatment services last year.

NYSN's relationship with sober-home operators, which have provided nearly all its clients, helped it become the seventh-busiest, non-methadone-dispensing outpatient drug treatment clinic in New York City in 2011, state records show. The clinic saw nearly 1,000 patients that year. In 2012, it billed Medicaid for $3.2 million.

Clinics are licensed by the state Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) and are inspected at regular intervals depending in part on the length of their license. The city sends monthly $215 rent stipends for indigent addicts directly to the sober homes, which are not licensed. Allegations of kickbacks paid by treatment clinics to the sober homes that feed them are common among patients, counselors and others inside the system. But they have seldom resulted in action by authorities.

No sober-home operator referred more patients to NYSN than Imbert’s landlord, Yury Baumblit. In a class-action lawsuit, advocates for tenants have called conditions in Baumblit’s homes unsafe and accused him of illegally evicting residents, allegations he denied in court filings. The 62-year-old Baumblit, who has operated sober homes under various business names, was convicted in 2009 on unrelated felony charges of bilking medical insurers for claims from fake car accidents. He declined several interview requests and did not respond to written questions sent to his attorney.

The attorney general’s office has received at least two complaints about NYSN and its relationship with sober homes. In 2010, NYSN’s program manager told an OASAS investigator the clinic had a “contract/agreement” with sober homes. The investigator determined the arrangement was improper, and the findings are under investigation by the attorney general, according to a spokeswoman for OASAS. A former NYSN staffer’s complaint alleging kickbacks involving Baumblit and NYSN also has been referred to the attorney general. In addition, three sources close to NYSN have told ProPublica they were part of or were present at conversations in which NYSN owner Feygin discussed payments to sober-home operators who sent patients to the clinic.

Also in 2010, an audit by New York’s Office of Medicaid Inspector General uncovered serious recordkeeping irregularities at NYSN. State officials ordered the clinic to give back $2.5 million in Medicaid “overpayments” — nearly half the clinic’s claims from 2003 to 2007. The money is being repaid over time by withholding part of NYSN’s billings.

The attorney general’s office declined to confirm whether NYSN is under investigation. As of early August, the clinic still owed approximately $1.1 million to New York’s Medicaid program. In March, it earned a new two-year license despite numerous deficiencies, including missing information in patient records and the lack of a written quality improvement plan. NYSN agreed to a “corrective action plan,” a routine remedial step.

Advocates for tougher oversight say there is a natural tendency by regulators to give clinics a break. Demand for drug and alcohol treatment far exceeds available resources, studies show, and some treatment is better than none at all. Patients at clinics like NYSN often have multiple health and psychological problems on top of their drug dependencies, factors that can complicate recovery.

Keeping services flowing to people in need can become more important than aggressively combating fraud, said James Sheehan, who formerly ran the Medicaid inspector general’s office. Clinics can be hard to prosecute, Sheehan noted, in part because people with substance issues can make unreliable witnesses. Providers often have the political clout with lawmakers to block tougher oversight, he said.

“Where is the constituency for making sure we pay only for the stuff we get?” Sheehan said. “It’s only a couple of legislators who don’t have clinics in their districts.”

Descent Into Addiction

Long before Imbert ended up at NYSN’s door, she led an affluent life. Her father, a wealthy businessman, sent her to a fancy prep school. She had a successful career in high-end sales and married into wealth. While living in France, Imbert admitted to a drinking problem. At her family’s urging, she entered rehab, where she learned how to function without alcohol. Imbert said she remained sober for just shy of 18 years.

It was a riding accident that proved her undoing. Imbert was living in Greenwich, Conn., when a horse she was on crossed its legs and fell on top of her, crushing the left side of her body and cracking her skull. The accident left her with a broken collarbone, displaced hip and significant nerve damage. With slurred speech and vision problems, Imbert said she was unable to work and was largely bedridden for three years.

A doctor prescribed a cocktail of narcotics to tame searing pain from trigeminal neuralgia, a disorder affecting facial nerves sometimes called the “suicide disease” because it can be so debilitating. As medical bills mounted, her marriage dissolved under the strain. On June 22, 2012, Imbert said, she began to drink again. Her Manhattan landlord eventually moved to evict her, and relatives gave her an ultimatum: Prove she was serious about long-term sobriety, or they’d have nothing to do with her.

.right-sidebar-media { width: 250px; float:right; margin: 0 0 12px 12px; } .right-sidebar-media h2.definition { font-size: 15px; font-weight: bold; font-family: "ff-meta-serif-web-1", "ff-meta-serif-web-2", "Georgia", serif; margin-bottom: 10px; } .right-sidebar-media p.definition { font-size: 13px; font-family: "Helvetica Neue", Arial, sans-serif; } .right-sidebar-media p.definition .termtbd { text-transform: uppercase; font-weight: bold; } .source { font-size: 12px; font-family: "Helvetica Neue", Arial, sans-serif; font-style: italic; color: #999999; } Addiction Treatment by the Numbers

$24 billion Spent nationally on substance abuse treatment (2009)

69 percent Amount of the total that’s publicly funded

$6.7 billion Public spending on outpatient treatment (2009)

1.5 million Admissions, publicly financed treatment (2009)

74 percent Share of admissions going to outpatient treatment (2008)

39 percent Completion rate for outpatient programs (2008)

44 percent Share of admissions from justice system (2008)

4.8 million Number who could qualify for addiction coverage under health care reform

Sources: “Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice,” June 2012 and National Expenditures for Mental Health Services and Substance Abuse Treatment, 1986-2009

Imbert checked herself into a New York hospital to begin detoxing from the alcohol and painkillers. The hospital kept her for only four and a half days, and Medicaid wouldn’t pay for a residential treatment program. She was nowhere near completing detoxification from more than six years of prescription drugs, including the potent opiates Dilaudid and fentanyl. Nevertheless, she was discharged to a public shelter. There she drifted in and out of consciousness as the painkillers drained from her system, leaving her damaged nerves in agony.

Imbert said she was “so spaced out, I didn’t know who I was.” She fainted, hit her head and awoke shoeless in an ambulance rushing to the hospital.

This time she persuaded the hospital to hold her for six days. The hospital social worker referred her to an outpatient program in Manhattan and discharged her to a sober home in Brooklyn. The home informed Imbert she had to attend NYSN as a condition of residency, she said. Extreme vertigo, lethargy and elevated blood pressure drove Imbert back to the hospital. When she got out, however, the sober home no longer had a bed for her. Imbert didn’t want to return to the shelter. She ended up in a different sober home for women, this one run by Baumblit.

Nothing in Imbert's background had prepared her for what was to come. The house, in a rough section of Brooklyn called East New York, was part of a row of buildings that together can hold as many as 100 addicts, mostly men. It’s a 90-minute subway commute to NYSN, in the Mapleton neighborhood, but that is where she said Baumblit required her to attend treatment. Court filings and interviews with other patients echo her experience: Five other tenants, in affidavits and testimony for the class-action case, said they also had been required to attend NYSN.

Imbert said she feared for her life at Baumblit’s house. Drug and alcohol use was common. One of her housemates was selling sex for prescription drugs, something a former Baumblit employee told ProPublica was not uncommon. In the year that ended June 14, police were called to Baumblit’s row of homes on New Lots Avenue more than 100 times in response to medical emergencies, disputes and reports of robberies and drug crimes, according to an NYPD spokesperson.

Baumblit insisted that residents sign a contract, called the “House Rules,” agreeing to attend outpatient treatment. When Imbert started at NYSN, she was required to attend five counseling sessions a week — four group sessions and one individual. Five counseling sessions was the standard weekly schedule for almost all new patients, according to former NYSN staffers and patients, although clinic owner Feygin said all counseling schedules are tailored to individuals.

With straw-colored hair and striking blue eyes, Imbert stood out in NYSN’s overwhelmingly male and minority patient population. Her determination to keep her sobriety also set her apart.

Active substance abuse by fellow patients didn’t surprise her because it was so routine. Prices for illegal narcotics were discussed in the waiting room. The going price for clean urine was $20. Despite a need for money, Imbert never succumbed to the temptation to sell, she said. Neighbors of the clinic also told ProPublica they have been accosted for clean urine and witnessed drug dealing outside the clinic.

In the interview, Feygin said he can control only what happens on his own property. The Russian-born doctor, whose unwrinkled face belies his 66 years, acknowledged that clients are frequently ill-mannered and might offend neighbors, many of whom are Orthodox Jews and Muslims. Feygin provides a security guard and “no loitering” signs to help maintain order. He said any neighborhood drug dealing and urine sales are unrelated to his clinic.

Toward the end of her time at NYSN, Imbert realized that one of her group counselors was becoming increasingly incoherent and unable to focus during sessions. Former staffers said the counselor relapsed and is no longer with the program. Feygin said that, as far as he knows, the counselor left because of an illness.

“I was really shocked,” Imbert said. “Here was someone who was treating addicts, and he was using himself.”

‘Cut and Paste’ Recordkeeping

State regulations require comprehensive evaluations of new patients entering outpatient treatment. The evaluation includes personal histories that cover medical issues, family life and education. Those kinds of details are present in Imbert’s evaluation. They just don’t always correspond to her life history.

Imbert graduated high school from Culver Academies in Indiana. Her evaluation lists “coulver acadamey boarding school” but then reports that she "dropped out of high school" and received her “G.E.D.” while in “job corps” before she started “running the streets.” The evaluation also claims she wants “to go back to answering phones for work in the near future” — a job Imbert said she has never had.

The evaluation accurately lists her parents as deceased. Yet further down on the form, in answer to the question, "Who do you go to when you need to talk things through?" it states: “the client reported, i call my mother because i can talk with her about anything.” Glancing through her patient file after requesting it from NYSN, Imbert pointed out the discrepancy to a staffer, who fixed it. Imbert kept a copy of the original and provided it to ProPublica.

What the misinformation illustrates was a common practice at NYSN, according to Maxine Mathis, a counselor who left the facility last year. The staff called it “cut and paste.” Rather than go to the trouble of thoroughly interviewing a patient — as specified by the regulations — and noting the details on the evaluation forms, counselors would simply copy material from the forms of previous patients to save time, Mathis said.

New York Service Network in the Mapleton neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., became the seventh-busiest, non-methadone-dispensing outpatient drug treatment clinic in New York City in 2011, state records show. (Melanie Burford for ProPublica)

Despite the 2010 inspector general’s audit, recordkeeping irregularities continued at NYSN, according to former staffers, patients and Imbert’s patient file. Another common practice involved something staffers call “ghosting.” In ghosting, counselors claimed that individual treatment sessions were longer than they actually were or simply fabricated them, according to Mathis and two other former NYSN staffers. The documentation is required to back up Medicaid billing.

Former staffers said Feygin repeatedly pressured counselors to “increase his numbers,” which they understood to mean see more patients for longer treatment sessions. “He would come into staff meetings and say, ‘I don’t like where my numbers are, you need to see more’” patients, said Theodore Raffudeen II, a former medical biller at the clinic who filed the complaint alleging kickbacks.

Imbert said her schedule called for one individual counseling session a week, as a counselor-signed treatment plan from February 2013 shows. With the exception of two meetings to discuss reducing her counseling load, the weekly one-on-one sessions never lasted more than 10 to 15 minutes, she said.

Yet Imbert’s NYSN records report more than 16 individual sessions of 45 minutes and two of 35 minutes between Dec. 10 and Feb. 25, sometimes two or three a week. Her file shows three 45-minute sessions in the last week of February. For 45-minute sessions, Medicaid pays about $126, its maximum fee for individual counseling, in the New York City area. The state pays lesser amounts for sessions shorter than 38 minutes.

The counselor’s notes for Imbert’s individual sessions contain boilerplate comments that could apply to any patient. When they are specific — for example, “client has had no headaches in a long time” or that she had a brain injury as a result “of falling on a bed of ice” — they are often wrong.

Shown records of Imbert’s individual counseling sessions from the last week of February, Feygin confirmed that the clinic had billed for them. He insisted the records were accurate, despite Imbert’s assertion that she never attended more than one such session a week. “I don't care what she says,” Feygin said. “I have a document here.”

Feygin strongly denied that he would encourage fraud or falsifying records. He said he encourages his staff to be productive and blamed allegations of ghosting on disgruntled staff he’d fired, including Mathis.

Mathis, however, said she left the clinic after she was ordered to backdate patient files to make it appear that they had a nurse’s approval. When Mathis refused, she was demoted, she said, and then suspended for continuing “insubordination.” She found another job and quit while still on a 30-day suspension, she said.

Although Feygin described Mathis as well-educated and knowledgeable about treatment, he said he asked her to leave after other counselors complained that she was difficult. NYSN's attorney, Joseph J. LaBarbera, said clinic policies and confidentiality requirements prevented further comment.

A Landlord’s Power

Imbert soon discovered that her landlord, not her counselor, had final say over many aspects of her treatment.

While she attended NYSN, Imbert also voluntarily participated in daily 12-Step meetings. She credits the meetings, not NYSN, for helping her maintain her sobriety. Still, her family wanted proof that she had graduated from an outpatient program before they would begin to trust her again. When her NYSN counselor wouldn’t certify that she’d completed treatment, Imbert begged him to at least cut back the number of group counseling sessions she had to attend so she could start to look for work.

“I was never a drug addict, and if I stay here I will become one,” Imbert said she told him. “I’m a grateful recovering alcoholic, and I want out of here.”

Imbert said her counselor agreed to drop two of her group sessions. When she skipped the first time, however, she said Baumblit intervened to get the sessions restored. She was forced to do a make-up the next Saturday. Imbert believed that if she did not go along, Baumblit would evict her.

Discussions between staffers at NYSN and the sober homes concerning patients were routine, according to former staffers of both. Mathis said counselors would sometimes accede to the directives of sober-home operators out of fear that clients would lose their housing if they didn’t.

Feygin also made it clear on numerous occasions that NYSN counselors had to comply with requests from the sober-home operators, current and former staffers told ProPublica. Crossing Baumblit could result in dismissal. NYSN Counselor Lyudmila German said she learned this lesson the hard way.

In January 2012, a patient came to German saying that Baumblit was going to evict him and that he had nowhere to go, German said. She gave the patient a pamphlet from a nonprofit called MFY Legal Services about the rights of residents of sober homes, or as they also are known in New York, three-quarter houses. MFY is the legal advocacy group that had sued Baumblit over conditions in his homes. “The only person who can evict you from a three-quarter house is a judge,” the pamphlet states.

Baumblit called German later that day at NYSN, she recounted in an interview with ProPublica. He told her that if she still had a job at the clinic the following day, he would tell his tenants to boycott NYSN. According to several staffers, Baumblit had made such threats before and followed through. Residents at his houses would stay away from the clinic en masse until Baumblit got what he wanted.

Shortly after her conversation with Baumblit, Feygin called German to his office, she said. Feygin told her that he depended on Baumblit for his business and that she should stay at home for a few days. Several days later, a letter arrived from NYSN notifying German she was fired for “numerous failures ... to follow directives given by your supervisors.” German had worked at NYSN for 10 years.

“She was fired legally,” said Feygin, who declined to go into detail about the circumstances.

Feygin denied that Baumblit has any sway over his business. “Yury cannot require anything,” he said. But he confirmed that most of NYSN’s clients come from sober homes. Former medical biller Raffudeen, whose job involved tracking patients, said that in 2012 more than half were referred by Baumblit.

Patients were carefully monitored by the use of slips, like the one above, according to interviews with NYSN patients, current and former staffers, and allegations in the MFY lawsuit.

The comings and goings of patients were carefully monitored, according to interviews with NYSN patients, current and former staffers, and the MFY lawsuit. After every counseling session, each NYSN patient who was a sober-home resident was given a slip to indicate they received a clinic service. They were required to return to their sober house with the slip. Those who came back without one were given an opportunity to make up the treatment session. If not, they risked eviction.

“It was clear that I had to bring back a slip, or I would be kicked out,” Imbert said. Asked about the slips, Feygin declined to say whether it was he or Baumblit who required them. He described them as a way for the sober homes to ensure that clients were receiving treatment.

Staffers close to Baumblit and Feygin said that the slips were used to track “points.” At the beginning of each month, they said, Baumblit and at least one other sober-home operator would come to the clinic to pick up checks based on how many points they accumulated.

“Dr. Feygin is paying these sober houses to send clients to his program and paying them a lump sum of money per month to keep his program stocked with clientele,” according to the complaint Raffudeen submitted to the Office of Medicaid Inspector General in April 2012. “They are threatened to come to N.Y.S.N. five days out of the week or the clients get kicked out of their living quarters.”

Federal and New York laws make it a crime to knowingly and willfully accept or offer remuneration of any kind to influence the referral of patients for Medicare and Medicaid services. Raffudeen's complaint was forwarded to the attorney general's office.

Feygin adamantly denied paying sober-home operators for patients. Asked if he had a financial or business relationship with Baumblit, Feygin replied: “It is absolutely not true.”

NYSN attorney LaBarbera denied any wrongdoing and said the clinic is "unfamiliar with the alleged complaint to the attorney general." He said NYSN "takes pains to assure that its business ... is conducted in an appropriate manner in accordance with applicable laws, rules and regulations."

Within the outpatient treatment community, it is common to hear stories about landlords soliciting kickbacks. “We have been approached by sober-home operators who ask, ‘What are you going to pay me?’” says Gary Butchen, executive director of a well-regarded outpatient program in the New York area called Bridge Back to Life Center. He said he instructs his employees to decline the offers.

MFY filed its class-action case against Baumblit in 2010 on behalf of residents in his sober homes. The lawsuit, in New York Supreme Court, alleges that Baumblit’s operation lured residents by making false promises, forced them to sign unfair contracts and unlawfully evicted them as part of an unjust enrichment scheme. Addicts were told they would receive vocational training and help finding permanent housing, the lawsuit claims, though none was actually provided.

The lawsuit also alleges Baumblit had “financial interests” in residents’ attendance at outpatient treatment programs.

In court filings, Baumblit disputed the accusations. All residents of his homes are required to sign a contract that sets out a curfew, mandates outpatient treatment, prohibits drug use and gives him the right to evict tenants for violations. “The House Code is designed to encourage the participants to live a more stable life, and to prevent the disruption of the quiet use and enjoyment of the premise,” a court document says.

Five months before Imbert arrived at Baumblit’s row of houses, Judge David B. Vaughan tossed out MFY’s lawsuit, ruling that Baumblit was running a transitional housing program that wasn’t subject to tenant-protection laws. The one-paragraph ruling did not address other matters. MFY has appealed.

No regulations dictate who can or can’t run a sober home in New York. Baumblit was sentenced to six months in jail and five years’ probation after his 2009 conviction for fraud and money laundering. He was released from jail after three months. The New York attorney general had indicted Baumblit, his wife and others in a scheme to fabricate car accidents and send people who were purportedly injured to medical clinics in which Baumblit secretly held an interest.

Baumblit is not the only sober-home operator to send patients to NYSN, and other outpatient clinics also take his residents. Because sober homes are unlicensed in New York, there is no official count of how many exist. Interviews by ProPublica with five other NYSN patients who were residents of three different sober homes echoed Imbert — they, too, were required to use the system of slips that tracked attendance and observed poor conditions in the homes and drug use by residents.

Working with a coalition of housing advocates, New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice is finalizing a report about sober homes. Advocates identified 317 addresses of three-quarter houses, primarily in Brooklyn, but caution that it is likely not a complete census. According to Robert Riggs, the principal author, researchers interviewed 43 residents, many of whom have similar stories about the slip requirement, mandated attendance at clinics and the threat of eviction for not attending outpatient treatment.

“People should be able to choose what treatment they go to,” Riggs said. “There is a coercive aspect when you tie housing, unlicensed by OASAS, to treatment.”

A History of Problems

During the past three years, regulators have found problems at NYSN time and again.

In October 2010, an investigator with OASAS interviewed Fred Middleton, then the program director for NYSN, about the clinic’s relationship with sober homes. The inquiry was in response to a complaint from an NYSN patient, who said he told his counselor about intimidation at Baumblit’s house. The counselor informed Baumblit, who then evicted the patient, the complaint said.

Middleton told an OASAS investigator the facility had a “contract/agreement” with Baumblit’s operation and another sober-home operator who sent clients to NYSN. Middleton also described frequent consultation between NYSN and sober-home operators, “usually about attendance or toxicology results.” According to the investigator’s notes, Middleton said none of that discourse was recorded in patients’ charts because “the charts would be too voluminous.”

Middleton also expressed “concern” about the way the sober homes were run. “He does not feel residents are treated fairly,” the investigator wrote. A final report on the complaint concluded that “the communication between NYSN and the sober homes is inappropriate clinically and violates the client’s right to privacy.”

Outpatient Treatment: Where To Learn More

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal agency, has a search tool to find alcohol and drug abuse treatment or mental health facilities and programs nationwide.

If your clinic is in New York, the state regulator has a scorecard that rates licensed programs. Keep in mind that much of the information is self-reported by clinics.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University publishes annual reports on the state of addiction services and hosts links to treatment resources.

The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers also hosts a provider lookup.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a search tool to find meetings in your area, as does Narcotics Anonymous.

Asked what came of the 3-year-old inquiry, OASAS spokeswoman Jannette Rondó said it is under investigation by the attorney general’s office. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said that as a matter of policy, the office does not confirm or comment on the status of investigations.

Feygin said he did not know about the OASAS investigation and that Middleton was wrong about the existence of any “contract/agreement.”

In June 2012, Mathis also filed a complaint against NYSN alleging “excessive Medicaid billing,” problems with documentation and a counselor who inappropriately touched patients. Mathis was contacted by a representative from OASAS for more specifics but did not provide them, according to the complaint file. By that time, Mathis told ProPublica, she had taken another job and didn’t want to have anything more to do with NYSN.

While OASAS licenses and inspects clinics, the state’s Medicaid Inspector General focuses on financial fraud and abuse. The 2010 audit requiring NYSN to reimburse the state for $2.5 million in overpayments was conducted during Sheehan’s tenure as inspector general.

Auditors spent months going through NYSN’s records covering the period of May 2003 through December 2007. They found patient files missing treatment records, missing dates and signatures, and "excessive/unapproved visits." There was at least one error in 98 out of 100 patient files reviewed. The money was to be repaid by withholding 15 percent of NYSN’s future Medicaid billings. When Feygin later claimed financial hardship, the state reduced the amount it would withhold to 10 percent.

Recordkeeping problems and staffing deficiencies were identified during licensing reviews in 2010 and again this year. In four days at the clinic this past February, reviewers pulled 15 patient files for examination, as is standard practice. They cited NYSN for more than two dozen violations, including missing patient evaluations and signatures, incomplete treatment plans and mismatched Social Security numbers and birthdates. NYSN also lacked qualified staff to provide family counseling and coordinate health services, the reviewers found.

NYSN crafted a corrective action plan, and the state approved a two-year license.

The state can issue licenses for as little as six months to clinics that need more supervision. John Walden, who became NYSN’s new program director in late July, said NYSN was lucky to get a two-year license given the number of issues reviewers identified.

Feygin said that hiring and keeping qualified staff, particularly licensed clinical social workers, has been a constant challenge. Walden blamed past problems at NYSN on poor supervision and a difficult patient population. Many have mental health issues in addition to their substance abuse, he said, yet outpatient treatment is the most basic level of care they can get.

Experts say licensing inspections are typically too superficial to identify billing fraud. "They are feeble in detecting lies as long as you bill your lies correctly," said Malcolm Sparrow, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government who has studied Medicaid and Medicare fraud. The key is to drill in with more rigorous audits at clinics that demonstrate a pattern of bad practices, he said.

Butchen, Bridge Back to Life’s executive director, said there have always been providers who take shortcuts, and the state does a poor job of ferreting them out.

“A real unethical provider can easily get a three-year license,” said Butchen, who is a past president of the Addiction Treatment Providers Association of New York State. “It’s not indicative of the greater proportion of people who actually care about what we do and run credible organizations.”

New York is in the midst of reorganizing substance abuse treatment in the state. A recent change limits the number of counseling sessions for which clinics can receive full payment to 75 per patient in a fiscal year. Payments for additional sessions are at reduced rates.

The state also has plans to contract with managed care companies to oversee patient care and move away from the fee-for-service model of payment. The hope is to “improve patient outcomes and assure that associated resources are well managed,” spokeswoman Rondó said.

NYSN is rated highly in one patient outcome tracked by OASAS on clinic scorecards the agency publishes.

The agency measures the rate of “discontinued use” — patients who successfully stay sober while in treatment — using a formula that takes into account length of stay, substance use and whether counseling is completed. The measure is self-reported by clinics, however, and NYSN’s rate of 85 percent is 10 percentage points higher than any other clinic its size or larger in New York City.

Feygin expressed surprise when informed of this. “I didn’t know it was that good,” he said.

“Not There to Help”

On March 11, Imbert officially completed her treatment at NYSN.

Fearing she might be evicted before she could move to a new place, Imbert approached Baumblit. According to her account, he told her she could only stay if she went to a different outpatient program, pretended she was new to recovery and started the process all over. In the end, she said Baumblit agreed to let her remain for four days after her NYSN graduation.

The city’s Human Resources Administration, which distributes housing assistance, had already paid Imbert’s rent for the entire month.

A relative helped her pay move-in costs for a room in a better house, and after a few weeks she found a job in sales.

Imbert’s education and family support set her apart from most of the addicts and alcoholics she met at NYSN and in the homes. Today, she said she’s been sober almost a year. She believes it was a miracle she survived.

“NYSN and the sober houses associated with them are not there to help people,” Imbert said. “They are there to exploit Medicaid.”

If you or a loved one has an experience in a drug treatment clinic as a counselor or patient that you would like to share, please email Jake at

Categories: Media, Politics

For Prosecutor Under Fire, A Verdict at the Polls

September 6, 2013 - 10:40am

The year was 1990. George H.W. Bush was president. The song “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips was number one on the Billboard chart. And Charles “Joe” Hynes, celebrated for his role as a special prosecutor in a racially charged case in Howard Beach, began his first term as Brooklyn District Attorney.

Bush’s presidency came and went; his son’s did too. Wilson Phillips went on a 10-year hiatus; then got back together in 2004.

Hynes, all along the way, has done exactly what that top 1990 ballad instructed: He’s held on. He’s been Brooklyn’s top law man for nearly 24 years, making him one of the longest serving district attorneys in New York City history.

But Hynes’s once firm grasp on the position could be imperiled. Buffeted by controversial cases, charges of misconduct in his office, and concerns about possibly preferential treatment for Jewish residents of the borough, Hynes is seen by political strategists to be facing a serious challenge from Kenneth Thompson, an African-American former federal prosecutor. On Tuesday, Sept. 10, voters in the Brooklyn Democratic primary could deny Hynes a chance at a seventh term.

Almost all prosecutors who stay in office for lengthy terms wind up facing a familiar array of complaints – about cases lost, creeping arrogance, political gamesmanship. Robert M. Morgenthau, revered by many across his decades as Manhattan’s top prosecutor, had his share of critics and embarrassments, the troubled prosecution of five teenagers for the rape of a woman in Central Park among them.

Some of the complaints about Hynes, then, fit that mold: He’s been accused of hiring and firing people based on favoritism and political connections and he’s been taken to task for some failed or underwhelming prosecutions. Even his once reliable base of support, the borough’s Orthodox Jewish community, has seemed to split, some angered that Hynes has made a series of pedophilia cases against people in their ranks, others disappointed that he was late to the issue and overly lenient in his handling of the cases.

But Thompson, who served in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, has focused his criticism on the question of wrongful convictions and possible misconduct by prosecutors over the years in Hynes’s office.

On the campaign trail Thompson, for instance, has cited withering criticism from two federal judges over the way one of Hynes’s top prosecutors won a wrongful conviction in a high-profile murder case.

In the last several weeks, Thompson has gained endorsements from the Service Employees International Union, the Citizens Union, and several Brooklyn-based representatives in Congress.

Hynes has defended the work of his office, rejecting any claims that he permits or encourages misconduct. He has campaigned on what he asserts are his myriad novel and effective approaches to fighting crime.

Both the district attorney’s office and Hynes’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Little public polling has been done in the race. Turnout could play a role. And Hynes, whatever his arguable travails, has history on his side.

No incumbent district attorney has lost an election in any of New York’s boroughs since 1955. A Brooklyn district attorney hasn’t been unseated via the vote since 1911.

Here are some issues that may figure into the election’s outcome.

Michael Vecchione

Some of Hynes’s campaign woes can be traced to the conduct of Michael Vecchione, the head of Hynes’s Rackets Bureau. He’s a polarizing figure who has drawn heavy criticism for his conduct in and out of the courtroom.

Two federal judges have lambasted Vecchione for withholding evidence and for his handling of several witnesses in a high-profile murder case.

Now the defendant, a Brooklyn man named Jabbar Collins who spent 16 years in prison, is suing the city for millions as part of a far-reaching wrongful conviction lawsuit. His lawyer, Manhattan-based attorney Joel Rudin, is attempting to make the case that misconduct in Hynes’s office is so pervasive that Hynes must have actually condoned it.

Vecchione’s career in the district attorney’s office spans more than two decades. In 2003, the district attorney’s office was forced to vacate the conviction of a man they suspected of being involved in at least three murders when a federal court agreed to hear allegations that Vecchione had withheld evidence in the man’s trial.

In 2006, Vecchione tried to prosecute former FBI agent R. Lindley DeVecchio for helping arrange the murders of gangsters on behalf of mob boss Greg Scarpa. Hynes called it “the most stunning example of official corruption [he] had ever seen.” But the case fell apart just days into trial when it became clear that Vecchione’s chief witness was unstable and had given false testimony.

More recently, The New York Post reported that Vecchione instructed staff not to preserve exculpatory evidence in sex-trafficking cases during a training session in 2012.

Vecchione has denied all charges of misconduct, and he testified under oath that he did not remember the details of what took place at the training session for sex-trafficking cases in 2012.

Hynes has staunchly defended Vecchione, who continues to be one of the highest-paid prosecutors in the office. Earlier this year, Hynes allowed Vecchione to be a featured character in a CBS television show called Brooklyn DA.

ProPublica in 2013 has published a series of articles investigating prosecutorial misconduct and the lack of consequences for prosecutors who commit serious violations of the law. Vecchione was the subject of one of those articles.

Hynes’s office did not respond to ProPublica’s request for comment on Vecchione’s history and its possible impact on Hynes’s re-election effort.

50 Possibly Troubled Cases

Last spring, Hynes asked a judge to vacate the conviction of a man his office had mistakenly prosecuted for the murder of a Brooklyn rabbi. Hynes blamed a detective in the case for the wrongful conviction, and ordered his office to review 50 cases involving the detective.

The investigation has obvious implications for the now-retired detective, Louis Scarcella, who has publicly denied he ever did anything wrong. But Hynes’s prosecutors had vouched for the detective’s work in the cases, using the confessions he had allegedly won or the evidence he had produced to send people to prisons. Two of the prosecutors involved in Scarcella cases have gone on to work as New York State judges; four are now senior officials in the district attorney’s office.

Thompson and other critics of Hynes pounced when it became clear that a 12-member panel of lawyers and judges appointed by Hynes to oversee the review of the 50 cases included three people who had donated to Hynes’s campaign.

Hynes has said he is convinced of the panel’s independence, and that the investigation will go where the evidence takes it.

The New York Times reported Friday that its examination of some of Scarcella’s cases showed that prosecutors either ignored warning signs or made missteps of their own.

Hynes told the Times that the investigation so far had not turned up evidence that would require revisiting the propriety of a conviction. But he did not address the paper’s findings about the conduct of his prosecutors.

Detaining Witnesses

Hynes’s training procedures and office policies have also come under fire.

A Brooklyn man seeking to have his murder conviction overturned has accused Hynes’s office of holding a witness against his will until he agreed to testify as prosecutors wanted in the case.

That case, which is now before a federal judge, has fueled an effort by Jabbar Collins’s lawyer to establish that Hynes’s office routinely detained and coerced witnesses in violation of the law. The accusation, made as part of Collins’s lawsuit against Hynes and the city, deals with a powerful legal tool called the material witness order. The orders are supposed to be used only under rare circumstances, usually when prosecutors fear a potential witness might flee instead of testifying in court.

New York law requires that prosecutors bring any material witness straight to court.

But Collins’s lawyer, along with several other defense lawyers are seeking to hold prosecutors accountable for abusing the orders, alleging that witnesses were never brought before a judge or provided with a lawyer, as the law requires.

Hynes has denied allegations that his prosecutors failed to abide by the law in their handling of witnesses.


Hynes’s hiring and firing decisions have also proven fodder during the campaign, and Thompson has seized on them.

The New York Post reported this summer that Mark Posner, a lawyer in the office’s powerful Rackets Bureau, was caught using his office phone to call prostitutes. The Post article said Posner was found out by his own colleagues, who were investigating a local prostitution ring.

Posner is the son of a longtime ally of Hynes, Charles Posner. The elder Posner had served as Hynes’s liaison to Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, and Hynes had later recommended him for a judgeship. Posner, who died in 2004, served as a State Supreme Court justice for nearly a decade.

Hynes did not fire Mark Posner after learning of his misconduct. Instead, he suspended him for 10 days and transferred him to the Early Case Assessment Bureau, a low-level desk where prosecutors analyze arrests and make judgments on what charges to pursue.

At the time Posner was caught, Brooklyn DA spokesman Jerry Schmetterer told the Post that Hynes acted as soon as he learned of Posner’s conduct by suspending him, ordering him to seek counseling, and demoting him.

Posner didn’t immediately respond to a voice message left at his home. And neither Hynes’s office nor his campaign responded to questions from ProPublica.

In January 2012, Hynes hired a woman named Angel DiPietro to become an assistant district attorney. It was a hire with a backstory.

Eight years earlier, DiPietro was a witness in the murder case of Mark Fisher, a Fairfield University student-athlete in Prospect Park South. She was with Fisher and friends in Brooklyn the night he was killed. At the time, a spokesman for the police department told the New York Times that DiPietro demonstrated “a lack of full-hearted cooperation.” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly himself described DiPietro and seven of her other friends as “uncooperative.”

Eventually DiPietro testified at trial and two people she was with that night were found guilty of the murder.

DiPietro’s father, a defense attorney in Brooklyn, had been a regular contributor to Hynes’s political campaigns, and in the months after DiPietro was hired, he donated another $3,000 to Hynes’s 2013 political campaign.

DiPietro, contacted by telephone, referred ProPublica to the spokesman for the district attorney’s office. The spokesman did not respond to request for comment.

James DiPietro, Angel’s father, did agree to an interview.

“I wish I could’ve given him more,” DiPietro’s father said of his donations to Hynes. He said that his daughter was first offered the job in 2010 and fully deserved it on her own merits. And he asserted that his daughter had in fact cooperated fully in the Fisher murder investigation.

Selective Prosecutions

In 1996 Hynes indicted a Brooklyn political gadfly named John O’Hara. The charge was modest: voting from his girlfriend’s apartment, which was outside of his own election district. After three separate trials, O’Hara was found guilty, lost his law license, and was sentenced to community service.

O’Hara has always claimed that Hynes went after him because he’d run for city council and assembly seats against some of Hynes’s allies.

Thirteen years later, in 2009, a grievance committee bolstered O’Hara’s account. It restored his license, saying there were “grave doubts that Mr. O’Hara did anything that justified his criminal prosecution.”

In 2012, The New York Times ran a stinging series of articles on how Hynes’s office for years handled investigations of accused sexual predators in the Orthodox Jewish communities. The series established that Hynes had allowed many of the accusations to be handled by rabbinical courts rather than prosecuting the cases himself.

Hynes initially defended the way he handled the sex abuse cases, but eventually pledged reforms and began prosecuting them with more vigor.

Categories: Media, Politics

Revealed: The NSA’s Secret Campaign to Crack, Undermine Internet Security

September 5, 2013 - 2:08pm
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Note: This story is not subject to our Creative Commons license.

Closer Look: Why We Published the Decryption Story

Sept. 6: This story has been updated with a response from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The National Security Agency is winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age, according to newly disclosed documents.

This story has been reported in partnership between The New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica based on documents obtained by The Guardian.

For the Guardian: James Ball, Julian Borger, Glenn Greenwald
For the New York Times: Nicole Perlroth, Scott Shane
For ProPublica: Jeff Larson

The agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world, the documents show.

Many users assume — or have been assured by Internet companies — that their data is safe from prying eyes, including those of the government, and the N.S.A. wants to keep it that way. The agency treats its recent successes in deciphering protected information as among its most closely guarded secrets, restricted to those cleared for a highly classified program code-named Bullrun, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor.

.right-sidebar-media { width: 290px; float:right; margin: 0 0 12px 12px; } .right-sidebar-media h2.definition { font-size: 20px; font-weight: bold; font-family: "ff-meta-serif-web-1", "ff-meta-serif-web-2", "Georgia", serif; margin-bottom: 10px; } .right-sidebar-media ul { list-style: disc; margin-left: 1.2em; } .right-sidebar-media ul li { font-size: 13px; left: 1.2em; margin-right: 1.2em; } .right-sidebar-media p.definition .termtbd { text-transform: uppercase; font-weight: bold; } What's New Here
  • The NSA has secretly and successfully worked to break many types of encryption, the widely used technology that is supposed to make it impossible to read intercepted communications.
  • Referring to the NSA's efforts, a 2010 British document stated: "Vast amounts of encrypted Internet data are now exploitable." Another British memo said: "Those not already briefed were gobsmacked!"
  • The NSA has worked with American and foreign tech companies to introduce weaknesses into commercial encryption products, allowing backdoor access to data that users believe is secure.
  • The NSA has deliberately weakened the international encryption standards adopted by developers around the globe.

Beginning in 2000, as encryption tools were gradually blanketing the Web, the N.S.A. invested billions of dollars in a clandestine campaign to preserve its ability to eavesdrop. Having lost a public battle in the 1990s to insert its own “back door” in all encryption, it set out to accomplish the same goal by stealth.

The agency, according to the documents and interviews with industry officials, deployed custom-built, superfast computers to break codes, and began collaborating with technology companies in the United States and abroad to build entry points into their products. The documents do not identify which companies have participated.

The N.S.A. hacked into target computers to snare messages before they were encrypted. And the agency used its influence as the world’s most experienced code maker to covertly introduce weaknesses into the encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world.

“For the past decade, N.S.A. has led an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies,” said a 2010 memo describing a briefing about N.S.A. accomplishments for employees of its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. “Cryptanalytic capabilities are now coming online. Vast amounts of encrypted Internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable.”

When the British analysts, who often work side by side with N.S.A. officers, were first told about the program, another memo said, “those not already briefed were gobsmacked!”

An intelligence budget document makes clear that the effort is still going strong. “We are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit Internet traffic,” the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., wrote in his budget request for the current year.

In recent months, the documents disclosed by Mr. Snowden have described the N.S.A.’s broad reach in scooping up vast amounts of communications around the world. The encryption documents now show, in striking detail, how the agency works to ensure that it is actually able to read the information it collects.

The agency’s success in defeating many of the privacy protections offered by encryption does not change the rules that prohibit the deliberate targeting of Americans’ e-mails or phone calls without a warrant. But it shows that the agency, which was sharply rebuked by a federal judge in 2011 for violating the rules and misleading the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, cannot necessarily be restrained by privacy technology. N.S.A. rules permit the agency to store any encrypted communication, domestic or foreign, for as long as the agency is trying to decrypt it or analyze its technical features.

The N.S.A., which has specialized in code-breaking since its creation in 1952, sees that task as essential to its mission. If it cannot decipher the messages of terrorists, foreign spies and other adversaries, the United States will be at serious risk, agency officials say.

Just in recent weeks, the Obama administration has called on the intelligence agencies for details of communications by Qaeda leaders about a terrorist plot and of Syrian officials’ messages about the chemical weapons attack outside Damascus. If such communications can be hidden by unbreakable encryption, N.S.A. officials say, the agency cannot do its work.

But some experts say the N.S.A.’s campaign to bypass and weaken communications security may have serious unintended consequences. They say the agency is working at cross-purposes with its other major mission, apart from eavesdropping: ensuring the security of American communications.

Some of the agency’s most intensive efforts have focused on the encryption in universal use in the United States, including Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL, virtual private networks, or VPNs, and the protection used on fourth generation, or 4G, smartphones. Many Americans, often without realizing it, rely on such protection every time they send an e-mail, buy something online, consult with colleagues via their company’s computer network, or use a phone or a tablet on a 4G network.

For at least three years, one document says, GCHQ, almost certainly in close collaboration with the N.S.A., has been looking for ways into protected traffic of the most popular Internet companies: Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft’s Hotmail. By 2012, GCHQ had developed “new access opportunities” into Google’s systems, according to the document.

“The risk is that when you build a back door into systems, you’re not the only one to exploit it,” said Matthew D. Green, a cryptography researcher at Johns Hopkins University. “Those back doors could work against U.S. communications, too.”

Paul Kocher, a leading cryptographer who helped design the SSL protocol, recalled how the N.S.A. lost the heated national debate in the 1990s about inserting into all encryption a government back door called the Clipper Chip.

“And they went and did it anyway, without telling anyone,” Mr. Kocher said. He said he understood the agency’s mission but was concerned about the danger of allowing it unbridled access to private information.

“The intelligence community has worried about ‘going dark’ forever, but today they are conducting instant, total invasion of privacy with limited effort,” he said. “This is the golden age of spying.”

A Vital Capability

The documents are among more than 50,000 shared by The Guardian with The New York Times and ProPublica, the nonprofit news organization. They focus primarily on GCHQ but include thousands either from or about the N.S.A.

Intelligence officials asked The Times and ProPublica not to publish this article, saying that it might prompt foreign targets to switch to new forms of encryption or communications that would be harder to collect or read. The news organizations removed some specific facts but decided to publish the article because of the value of a public debate about government actions that weaken the most powerful tools for protecting the privacy of Americans and others.

The files show that the agency is still stymied by some encryption, as Mr. Snowden suggested in a question-and-answer session on The Guardian’s Web site in June.

“Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on,” he said, though cautioning that the N.S.A. often bypasses the encryption altogether by targeting the computers at one end or the other and grabbing text before it is encrypted or after it is decrypted.

The documents make clear that the N.S.A. considers its ability to decrypt information a vital capability, one in which it competes with China, Russia and other intelligence powers.

“In the future, superpowers will be made or broken based on the strength of their cryptanalytic programs,” a 2007 document said. “It is the price of admission for the U.S. to maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace.”

The full extent of the N.S.A.’s decoding capabilities is known only to a limited group of top analysts from the so-called Five Eyes: the N.S.A. and its counterparts in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Only they are cleared for the Bullrun program, the successor to one called Manassas — both names of American Civil War battles. A parallel GCHQ counterencryption program is called Edgehill, named for the first battle of the English Civil War of the 17th century.

Unlike some classified information that can be parceled out on a strict “need to know” basis, one document makes clear that with Bullrun, “there will be NO ‘need to know.’ ”

Only a small cadre of trusted contractors were allowed to join Bullrun. It does not appear that Mr. Snowden was among them, but he nonetheless managed to obtain dozens of classified documents referring to the program’s capabilities, methods and sources.

Ties to Internet Companies

When the N.S.A. was founded, encryption was an obscure technology used mainly by diplomats and military officers. Over the last 20 years, with the rise of the Internet, it has become ubiquitous. Even novices can tell that their exchanges are being automatically encrypted when a tiny padlock appears next to the Web address on their computer screen.

Because strong encryption can be so effective, classified N.S.A. documents make clear, the agency’s success depends on working with Internet companies — by getting their voluntary collaboration, forcing their cooperation with court orders or surreptitiously stealing their encryption keys or altering their software or hardware.

According to an intelligence budget document leaked by Mr. Snowden, the N.S.A. spends more than $250 million a year on its Sigint Enabling Project, which “actively engages the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs” to make them “exploitable.” Sigint is the abbreviation for signals intelligence, the technical term for electronic eavesdropping.

By this year, the Sigint Enabling Project had found ways inside some of the encryption chips that scramble information for businesses and governments, either by working with chipmakers to insert back doors or by surreptitiously exploiting existing security flaws, according to the documents. The agency also expected to gain full unencrypted access to an unnamed major Internet phone call and text service; to a Middle Eastern Internet service; and to the communications of three foreign governments.

In one case, after the government learned that a foreign intelligence target had ordered new computer hardware, the American manufacturer agreed to insert a back door into the product before it was shipped, someone familiar with the request told The Times.

The 2013 N.S.A. budget request highlights “partnerships with major telecommunications carriers to shape the global network to benefit other collection accesses” — that is, to allow more eavesdropping.

At Microsoft, as The Guardian has reported, the N.S.A. worked with company officials to get pre-encryption access to Microsoft’s most popular services, including Outlook e-mail, Skype Internet phone calls and chats, and SkyDrive, the company’s cloud storage service.

Microsoft asserted that it had merely complied with “lawful demands” of the government, and in some cases, the collaboration was clearly coerced. Executives who refuse to comply with secret court orders can face fines or jail time.

N.S.A. documents show that the agency maintains an internal database of encryption keys for specific commercial products, called a Key Provisioning Service, which can automatically decode many messages. If the necessary key is not in the collection, a request goes to the separate Key Recovery Service, which tries to obtain it.

How keys are acquired is shrouded in secrecy, but independent cryptographers say many are probably collected by hacking into companies’ computer servers, where they are stored. To keep such methods secret, the N.S.A. shares decrypted messages with other agencies only if the keys could have been acquired through legal means. “Approval to release to non-Sigint agencies,” a GCHQ document says, “will depend on there being a proven non-Sigint method of acquiring keys.”

Simultaneously, the N.S.A. has been deliberately weakening the international encryption standards adopted by developers. One goal in the agency’s 2013 budget request was to “influence policies, standards and specifications for commercial public key technologies,” the most common encryption method.

Cryptographers have long suspected that the agency planted vulnerabilities in a standard adopted in 2006 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the United States’ encryption standards body, and later by the International Organization for Standardization, which has 163 countries as members.

Classified N.S.A. memos appear to confirm that the fatal weakness, discovered by two Microsoft cryptographers in 2007, was engineered by the agency. The N.S.A. wrote the standard and aggressively pushed it on the international group, privately calling the effort “a challenge in finesse.”

“Eventually, N.S.A. became the sole editor,” the memo says.

Even agency programs ostensibly intended to guard American communications are sometimes used to weaken protections. The N.S.A.’s Commercial Solutions Center, for instance, invites the makers of encryption technologies to present their products and services to the agency with the goal of improving American cybersecurity. But a top-secret N.S.A. document suggests that the agency’s hacking division uses that same program to develop and “leverage sensitive, cooperative relationships with specific industry partners” to insert vulnerabilities into Internet security products.

A Way Around

By introducing such back doors, the N.S.A. has surreptitiously accomplished what it had failed to do in the open. Two decades ago, officials grew concerned about the spread of strong encryption software like Pretty Good Privacy, or P.G.P., designed by a programmer named Phil Zimmermann. The Clinton administration fought back by proposing the Clipper Chip, which would have effectively neutered digital encryption by ensuring that the N.S.A. always had the key.

That proposal met a broad backlash from an unlikely coalition that included political opposites like Senator John Ashcroft, the Missouri Republican, and Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, as well as the televangelist Pat Robertson, Silicon Valley executives and the American Civil Liberties Union. All argued that the Clipper would kill not only the Fourth Amendment, but also America’s global edge in technology.

By 1996, the White House backed down. But soon the N.S.A. began trying to anticipate and thwart encryption tools before they became mainstream.

“Every new technology required new expertise in exploiting it, as soon as possible,” one classified document says.

Each novel encryption effort generated anxiety. When Mr. Zimmermann introduced the Zfone, an encrypted phone technology, N.S.A. analysts circulated the announcement in an e-mail titled “This can’t be good.”

But by 2006, an N.S.A. document notes, the agency had broken into communications for three foreign airlines, one travel reservation system, one foreign government’s nuclear department and another’s Internet service by cracking the virtual private networks that protected them.

By 2010, the Edgehill program, the British counterencryption effort, was unscrambling VPN traffic for 30 targets and had set a goal of an additional 300.

But the agencies’ goal was to move away from decrypting targets’ tools one by one and instead decode, in real time, all of the information flying over the world’s fiber optic cables and through its Internet hubs, only afterward searching the decrypted material for valuable intelligence.

A 2010 document calls for “a new approach for opportunistic decryption, rather than targeted.” By that year, a Bullrun briefing document claims that the agency had developed “groundbreaking capabilities” against encrypted Web chats and phone calls. Its successes against Secure Sockets Layer and virtual private networks were gaining momentum.

But the agency was concerned that it could lose the advantage it had worked so long to gain, if the mere “fact of” decryption became widely known. “These capabilities are among the Sigint community’s most fragile, and the inadvertent disclosure of the simple ‘fact of’ could alert the adversary and result in immediate loss of the capability,” a GCHQ document outlining the Bullrun program warned.

Corporate Pushback

Since Mr. Snowden’s disclosures ignited criticism of overreach and privacy infringements by the N.S.A., American technology companies have faced scrutiny from customers and the public over what some see as too cozy a relationship with the government. In response, some companies have begun to push back against what they describe as government bullying.

Google, Yahoo and Facebook have pressed for permission to reveal more about the government’s secret requests for cooperation. One small e-mail encryption company, Lavabit, shut down rather than comply with the agency’s demands for what it considered confidential customer information; another, Silent Circle, ended its e-mail service rather than face similar demands.

In effect, facing the N.S.A.’s relentless advance, the companies surrendered.

Ladar Levison, the founder of Lavabit, wrote a public letter to his disappointed customers, offering an ominous warning. “Without Congressional action or a strong judicial precedent,” he wrote, “I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.”

Update (9/6): Statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence:

It should hardly be surprising that our intelligence agencies seek ways to counteract our adversaries’ use of encryption. Throughout history, nations have used encryption to protect their secrets, and today, terrorists, cybercriminals, human traffickers and others also use code to hide their activities. Our intelligence community would not be doing its job if we did not try to counter that.

While the specifics of how our intelligence agencies carry out this cryptanalytic mission have been kept secret, the fact that NSA’s mission includes deciphering enciphered communications is not a secret, and is not news. Indeed, NSA’s public website states that its mission includes leading “the U.S. Government in cryptology … in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies.”

The stories published yesterday, however, reveal specific and classified details about how we conduct this critical intelligence activity. Anything that yesterday’s disclosures add to the ongoing public debate is outweighed by the road map they give to our adversaries about the specific techniques we are using to try to intercept their communications in our attempts to keep America and our allies safe and to provide our leaders with the information they need to make difficult and critical national security decisions.

John Markoff contributed reporting for The New York Times.

Categories: Media, Politics

Why We Published the Decryption Story

September 5, 2013 - 1:54pm

Sept. 6: This Closer Look has been updated with a response from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

ProPublica is today publishing a story in partnership with the Guardian and The New York Times about U.S. and U.K. government efforts to decode enormous amounts of Internet traffic previously thought to have been safe from prying eyes. This story is based on documents provided by Edward Snowden, the former intelligence community employee and contractor. We want to explain why we are taking this step, and why we believe it is in the public interest.

The story, we believe, is an important one. It shows that the expectations of millions of Internet users regarding the privacy of their electronic communications are mistaken. These expectations guide the practices of private individuals and businesses, most of them innocent of any wrongdoing. The potential for abuse of such extraordinary capabilities for surveillance, including for political purposes, is considerable. The government insists it has put in place checks and balances to limit misuses of this technology. But the question of whether they are effective is far from resolved and is an issue that can only be debated by the people and their elected representatives if the basic facts are revealed.

It’s certainly true that some number of bad actors (possibly including would-be terrorists) have been exchanging messages through means they assumed to be safe from interception by law enforcement or intelligence agencies. Some of these bad actors may now change their behavior in response to our story.

In weighing this reality, we have not only taken our own counsel and that of our publishing partners, but have also conferred with the government of the United States, a country whose freedoms give us remarkable opportunities as journalists and citizens.

Two possible analogies may help to illuminate our thinking here.

First, a historical event: In 1942, shortly after the World War II Battle of Midway, the Chicago Tribune published an article suggesting, in part, that the U.S. had broken the Japanese naval code (which it had). Nearly all responsible journalists we know would now say that the Tribune’s decision to publish this information was a mistake. But today’s story bears no resemblance to what the Tribune did. For one thing, the U.S. wartime code-breaking was confined to military communications. It did not involve eavesdropping on civilians.

The second analogy, while admittedly science fiction, seems to us to offer a clearer parallel. Suppose for a moment that the U.S. government had secretly developed and deployed an ability to read individuals’ minds. Such a capability would present the greatest possible invasion of personal privacy. And just as surely, it would be an enormously valuable weapon in the fight against terrorism.

Continuing with this analogy, some might say that because of its value as an intelligence tool, the existence of the mind-reading program should never be revealed. We do not agree. In our view, such a capability in the hands of the government would pose an overwhelming threat to civil liberties. The capability would not necessarily have to be banned in all circumstances. But we believe it would need to be discussed, and safeguards developed for its use. For that to happen, it would have to be known.

There are those who, in good faith, believe that we should leave the balance between civil liberty and security entirely to our elected leaders, and to those they place in positions of executive responsibility. Again, we do not agree. The American system, as we understand it, is premised on the idea -- championed by such men as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison -- that government run amok poses the greatest potential threat to the people’s liberty, and that an informed citizenry is the necessary check on this threat. The sort of work ProPublica does -- watchdog journalism -- is a key element in helping the public play this role.

American history is replete with examples of the dangers of unchecked power operating in secret. Richard Nixon, for instance, was twice elected president of this country. He tried to subvert law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies for political purposes, and was more than willing to violate laws in the process. Such a person could come to power again. We need a system that can withstand such challenges. That system requires public knowledge of the power the government possesses. Today’s story is a step in that direction.

Update (9/6): Statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence:

It should hardly be surprising that our intelligence agencies seek ways to counteract our adversaries’ use of encryption. Throughout history, nations have used encryption to protect their secrets, and today, terrorists, cybercriminals, human traffickers and others also use code to hide their activities. Our intelligence community would not be doing its job if we did not try to counter that.

While the specifics of how our intelligence agencies carry out this cryptanalytic mission have been kept secret, the fact that NSA’s mission includes deciphering enciphered communications is not a secret, and is not news. Indeed, NSA’s public website states that its mission includes leading “the U.S. Government in cryptology … in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies.”

The stories published yesterday, however, reveal specific and classified details about how we conduct this critical intelligence activity. Anything that yesterday’s disclosures add to the ongoing public debate is outweighed by the road map they give to our adversaries about the specific techniques we are using to try to intercept their communications in our attempts to keep America and our allies safe and to provide our leaders with the information they need to make difficult and critical national security decisions.

Categories: Media, Politics

Podcast: What We Know (And Don’t Know) About the Drone War

September 5, 2013 - 12:36pm

Drones, or “unmanned aerial vehicles” as the military prefers to call them, have been used to strike al Qaeda targets in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia as a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s national security protocol. But as ProPublica fellow Cora Currier has detailed in her reporting, much of the drone war remains shrouded in secrecy.

She joins ProPublica editor-in-chief Steve Engelberg in the Storage Closet Studio this week to discuss how drone targets are selected, what exactly a “signature” is (and how it can get you killed), and how officials often frame the conflict in Yemen and Pakistan as the “least bad war” in terms of civilian casualties but public blowback might soon change that calculation.

You can read more of ProPublica’s reporting on drones on our series page. You can also listen to this podcast on iTunes and Stitcher.

Categories: Media, Politics

To Dodge Law, High-Cost Lender Offers Cash for Free

September 3, 2013 - 1:09pm

Alarmed by the explosion of high-cost lending in the state, cities across Texas have passed ordinances to prevent the cycle of debt that short-term, high-cost loans can create.

But some big lenders are finding clever ways around the laws – like giving away cash for free.

TitleMax promises to “make getting cash easy!” To get a loan, borrowers with “good credit, bad credit, or no credit” need only turn over the title to their car.

In Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin – which have all passed lending laws – those loans have come with zero percent interest.

What’s the catch? After 30 days, the loan is due in full. If the borrower cannot pay –TitleMax’s average loan is for $1,300 – the borrower is sent to another TitleMax location outside of the city, where he or she can receive a new, unrestricted loan. That loan, states a contract given to one borrower, could have an annual rate as high as 310 percent.

Of course, the borrower would be free to renew the loan at that location – over and over again.

“It’s a bait and switch,” said Ann Baddour of the non-profit Texas Appleseed. “The practice may not be illegal, but it’s definitely unethical and unconscionable.”

TitleMax declined to comment. Like other high-cost lenders, the company touts its products as an option for borrowers who might not qualify for other sources of credit.

An auto-title loan is similar to its better known cousin, the payday loan – but larger and with more at stake. Typically, the borrower hands over title to her car and agrees to pay off the loan after one month. If she can’t do that, she can pay only the interest due and roll over the principal to the next month.

As with payday loans, the cycle can repeat itself over and over. A study by the Consumer Federation of America and Center for Responsible Lending found that the average borrower renews a loan eight times. A borrower who defaults risks having her car seized. (Disclosure: The Center and ProPublica both get significant funding from The Sandler Foundation.) 

In six TitleMax contracts from Texas reviewed by ProPublica, the company actually charged an annual rate ranging from 145 to 182 percent.

TitleMax’s ploy is the latest example of high-cost lenders’ ingenuity when confronted by unwanted laws. In Texas, at least eight towns and cities have passed lending ordinances in the past two years.Together, the new laws cover over four million Texans.

The ordinances come at a time of explosive growth for TitleMax’s parent company, TMX Finance, one of the largest title lenders in the country. The company has more than 1,200 stores across 14 states and will soon move into its 15th.

In its home state of Georgia, TMX boasts more than 300 locations – more branches than any bank. (Wells Fargo and SunTrust come closest with around 280 branches statewide each.). The company has doubled in size since 2008 and says it plans to keep up the same rate of growth.

TMX’s growth is especially evident in Texas, where it has opened more than 150 stores in the past two years. It continues to operate in cities that have passed ordinances. Under the names of TitleMax and TitleBucks, for instance, TMX operates a total of more than 80 stores in Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio.

Last December, Texas’s regulator for payday and auto-title lenders announced –  without naming TitleMax – that it was “concerned” about the practice of offering a zero percent loan to customers in those cities. The offer might prove too tempting to someone who might otherwise never take out an auto-title loan, said the regulator in a bulletin to lenders: “This business model could also be perceived as a deceptive practice because it appears calculated to bring the consumer into the store with the promise of one product, but later effectively requires the consumer to go to another location to purchase another product.”

In a statement to ProPublica, Dana Edgerton, spokeswoman for the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, said that the agency was not aware of any other lenders besides TitleMax offering a zero percent loan.

Despite their concerns, state regulators do not have authority to enforce the city’s ordinances, Edgerton said. It can only warn lenders of potential consequences – a warning TMX has not heeded.

High-cost lenders in and around Denton TitleMax and TitleBucks Locations Other high-cost lenders inside Denton Other high-cost lenders outside Denton

The city of Denton’s lending ordinance, which passed in March, prohibits payday and auto-title lenders from renewing borrowers’ loans more than three times. “That was the biggest thing, just having some kind of end point,” said Kayce Strader of the non-profit Serve Denton and a volunteer for the local alliance Denton for Fair Lending..

As soon as Denton’s law went into effect, according to a class action lawsuit filed in June in state court, TitleMax notified its current customers there would be a change. They would no longer be able to renew their loan in Denton. Instead, customers had a choice: They could pay off the loan in full or accept a zero percent loan. That loan, in turn, would not be renewable at the Denton location. But, the notice says, “We want you to know that we will work with you during this transition period.”

Where to go, then? TitleMax also has a location 15 miles down the highway in Flower Mound, Texas, the notice says. “[You] may want to consider doing business” there, and once you’ve switched, “you can continue transacting at that location,” it says.

According to the suit, the named plaintiffs all got caught renewing TitleMax loans over and over. One allegedly renewed her loan 23 times, paid at least $10,800 in fees, and after all that still owed $3,961. Another, the suit says, renewed her loan twelve times. By switching such customers to a location outside Denton, TitleMax would have been able to continue renewing the loans without restriction.

The suit charges TitleMax duped customers into thinking they were paying down their balance when they were in reality just paying the same fees again and again. TitleMax denies the allegations and is contesting the suit. The company’s attorney declined comment.

Categories: Media, Politics

One Step Closer To Getting Her Husband’s Heart Back

August 30, 2013 - 10:59am

Linda Carswell has passed a major milestone in her quest to get her husband’s heart back.

A Texas appeals court ruled Thursday against the hospital that has been blocking her from retrieving the heart of her husband, who had died unexpectedly while in the hospital’s care in 2004. The court also upheld a $2 million fraud judgment Carswell won against the hospital.

Jerry Carswell, 61, had been admitted to Christus St. Catherine Hospital, in Katy, Texas, with kidney stones and was supposed to have gone home on the day he passed away in January 2004. He had been given narcotic painkillers, but the exact cause of death was never determined.

Linda, his wife of 33 years, filed a lawsuit and discovered something that’s horrified her ever since: The hospital pathologist who did Jerry’s autopsy kept his heart. Medical providers refused to return it, as ProPublica first reported in 2011. It remains refrigerated in a hospital morgue.

Carswell compares the legal battle to recover his heart to a search and rescue mission to duly honor and respect her husband. “It’s in the hands of the people that took his life,” Carswell said. “I don’t want them to have anything that belongs to Jerry.”

On the morning that Jerry died, Linda urged hospital employees to ask the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office for a complete and independent autopsy to determine the cause of death. But a hospital employee told Carswell that the medical examiner’s office refused to take the case because officials there had been told that he died of renal failure.

That statement was described as “a material, false misrepresentation with at least reckless disregard for the truth” in the ruling by a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas.

Hospital employees also told Carswell that a complete autopsy that’s “just like” a forensic autopsy could be performed at St. Joseph Medical Center. They did not tell Carswell that St. Joseph, at the time, was owned by the same company as Christus St. Catherine, where her husband died.

In fact, hospital autopsies are rare and are not like more thorough forensic autopsies. Carswell’s autopsy did not include any toxicology tests, which her lawyers argued might have been able to determine whether painkillers contributed to his death.

Attorneys for Christus St. Catherine have argued that Jerry’s heart cannot be returned because it’s possible evidence in the legal case. They blocked St. Joseph Medical Center, by then owned by a different company, from turning the heart over to Linda Carswell.

While finding fraud, the jury that originally heard Carswell’s case rejected a claim that medical negligence caused Jerry’s death. Carswell did not appeal the verdict, leading the appeals court to determine the hospital had no need to maintain the heart as evidence.

Attorney Erin Lunceford, who represents St. Joseph Medical Center, said she was still digesting the court opinion and discussing it with her clients. But now that the appeals court has removed the legal barrier, she said the heart could be returned, assuming the Christus hospital doesn’t otherwise intervene.

Christus attorneys did not return calls for comment. Neil McCabe, the attorney who represented Carswell before the appeals court, said it’s possible the hospital could still try and maintain possession of the heart even though the appeals court determined it’s not relevant to the fraud verdict.

Carswell said the ruling validated the mistreatment she and her family suffered. “Clearly, wrong was done in Jerry’s death,” she said. “And on top of that, clearly the hospital tried to cover things up.”

After almost 10 years, she feels she and her family can come to closure once the heart is returned. She’s selected a small box for it, and looks forward to burying it alongside her husband’s other remains.

Categories: Media, Politics

In Effort to End Prison Rape, Questions About a Monitor’s Independence

August 30, 2013 - 7:57am

After more than a decade of national legislative efforts to end prison rape, this month was supposed to produce a significant victory: formal audits of prisons and jails around the country that would more reliably chronicle incidents of sex abuse and the consequences for its perpetrators.

But that moment of possible progress has turned out to be more complicated than many had hoped. The first round of audits will be chiefly conducted by the American Correctional Association (ACA), the very organization that has been criticized over the years for failing to identify and address safety problems at prisons across the country.

The ACA, based in Virginia, performs an array of services for the corrections industry: it provides training for guards and other officials, hosts conferences, and lobbies in Washington. But it is perhaps best known for its accreditation service. Prison officials pay the organization to evaluate facilities on issues such as inmate healthcare, sanitation, food service, and personnel training. ACA’s blessing is sought, in part, to help prisons defend against inmate lawsuits.

Now, as part of legislation aimed at reducing the incidence of sexual assaults in prison, the ACA will be responsible for helping make sure the state and federal adult prisons and juvenile detention centers it accredits are properly investigating allegations of sexual abuse, disciplining guards and inmates and providing appropriate medical attention to victims.

The development has dismayed some of those involved in improving the safety of the country’s prisons.

“If some group were closely tied to the police, would you really go to them to complain about police brutality?” asked Jack Beck, a director of the Correctional Association of New York, a non-profit organization dedicated to prison reform efforts.

“This is a way to manage this whole thing so it’s not going to rock the boat too much,” Beck said.

The American Correctional Association has yet to respond to questions for this story. If they do, we’ll post an update.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who helped author the national legislation, known as the Prison Rape Elimination Act, said he is comfortable with ACA handling the work.

“It’s the natural organization to do the audits,” Scott said. “If they turn out not to be that aggressive, then it will become a problem. But I don’t think it’s a problem now. These people have a lot invested in their professionalism.”

The U.S. Justice Department, which played a critical role in the development of the legislation, sent a four-page statement in response to questions for this story. It said the first group of auditors were “handpicked” but did not address the concerns about the propriety of ACA conducting the sex abuse audits. The department said mandatory training sessions will be required for all auditors, no matter who they work for.

Over the years, the ACA’s work for the country’s prisons and jails has been scrutinized by federal courts and occasionally found wanting.

In January 1999, a U.S. District Court in Texas presided over a lawsuit filed by prisoners who claimed they were abused by guards and other inmates. After a three-week-long fact-finding hearing, the court found that constitutional violations were widespread, this despite the fact that the state’s prisons were accredited by the ACA.

The court found that inmates in Texas state prisons lived “under conditions allowing a substantial risk of physical and sexual abuse from other inmates, as well as malicious and sadistic use of force by correctional officers.” Further, the court determined that the state “failed to take reasonable measures to protect vulnerable inmates from other, predatory prisoners and overzealous, physically aggressive state employees.”

Courts have come to similar conclusions about the conditions in ACA accredited prisons in California and Florida.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said such a track record undercuts the ACA’s credibility as an effective agent in the push to truly limit sexual violence in the country’s prisons. Fettig and other advocates are now pushing the Justice Department to expand its pool of potential auditors to include options other than the ACA.

Those options could include judges or lawyers or other organizations with expertise in corrections issues. The ACLU, which does not accept government funding, would not be a candidate.

“We have to make sure these audits are part of a meaningful process. Otherwise we’re missing an opportunity to create more humane facilities,” Fettig said.

The push to address sexual assaults in prison – violence that included inmates and corrections officers as well – began decades ago, and was marked by setbacks and years of delay.

In 1968, an activist named Tom Cahill was arrested at an anti-war protest and sent to a San Antonio jail, where he says he was serially raped and beaten over the course of 24 hours. Afterward, he dedicated his life to ending such violence behind bars. He staged a 60-day hunger strike outside of San Quentin, wrote countless letters to lawmakers, and started a non-profit organization called Stop Prison Rape.

In the 1990s, Cahill gained the attention of Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who, in partnership with Scott, began work on drafting and adopting legislation.

In 1998, legislation was introduced in Congress seeking a wide range of reforms and requirements, including better training for prison personnel and clear accountability and investigative measures. The legislation never made it to a floor vote.

But in 2003, similar legislation won greater backing and resulted in the formal prison rape act.

The measure called for the establishment of a national commission comprised of advocates and corrections officials. The commission was supposed to examine the problem and recommend a set of standards in two years. It took five.

The commission released a report in 2009, and at that point the Justice Department was supposed to adopt and enforce rules based on the commission’s recommendations within a year. It took three.

The final rules were released in June 2012. They called for zero tolerance of sexual abuse in prisons, increased training for corrections staff, and required independent audits for all confinement facilities once every three years.

Still, the requirements apply to all federal facilities. States can choose to abide by them or not, but risk losing federal funding if they do not. The legislation calls for a 5 percent reduction in federal financing for any state found to fall short in the reform effort.

But following the law will cost states money, too. Some prison systems will have to overhaul their surveillance systems, hire more staff, and implement new mechanisms for inmates to report sex abuse. Some governors may decide that, given the expense of reform, they would rather accept the budget reduction instead.

The Justice Department hasn’t made public which states have agreed to comply and which haven’t. The first audit was conducted last week at a federal prison in West Virginia; the next two will take place at federal facilities in Pennsylvania and Illinois.

Advocates involved in pushing for the legislation are mostly proud of the final outcome, but feel it didn’t need to take so long.

“The Prison Rape Elimination Act and standards are both real milestones in the fight to once and for all eliminate sexual abuse in detention. Having said that I feel it’s a real shame that we had to fight so long and so hard for the PREA standards,” said Lovisa Stannow, who now heads the Los Angeles-based Just Detention International, which evolved out of the non-profit that Cahill started decades ago.

“These standards should have been developed more quickly, and it would’ve been possible to get them done more quickly if we hadn’t been up against really intense corrections opposition for many years.”

Stannow and other advocates have pledged to monitor the first round of audits vigilantly for any signs of leniency.

“I think we are cautiously optimistic,” said Chris Daley, Just Detention International’s representative in Washington, who also pointed out that facilities are given a deadline to correct any flaws identified by the audits. “That’s an indication that the audits aren’t just about transparency but transforming the environment within a facility so that the regulations aren’t just policies but actual practices.”

Categories: Media, Politics

Journalists: Send ProPublica Your Redaction Classics

August 29, 2013 - 10:05am

The Obama administration’s take on transparency can be rather opaque. Send us your most memorable FOIA documents for our Redaction Classics collection.

Categories: Media, Politics

March on Washington Anniversary: Great Reads on Racial Justice

August 28, 2013 - 9:38am

On August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands marched in Washington, D.C., to demand jobs and freedom for Black Americans. Fifty years later, less than half of Americans say the U.S. has made a lot of progress toward racial equality, according to a recent Pew poll. Here's some of the best reads on the ongoing fight for civil rights.

What do you think is required reading on racial justice? Tweet us your suggestions to #EqualityMuckreads.

Categories: Media, Politics

Gitmo Soldiers Get 9/11 History Lessons

August 27, 2013 - 12:54pm

Young soldiers at Guantanamo Bay would have been in grade school when the 9/11 attacks occurred. But the government is making sure the terrorist attacks are fresh in their minds.

The FBI now holds briefings for military personnel stationed at Guantanamo about the attacks and their connection to the island prison. Five detainees are currently being tried for their role in plotting 9/11. There are 161 other prisoners there too, about half of whom have been cleared for transfer.

The presentation includes details about the hijackings, videos of the World Trade Center, and recordings of 9-1-1 calls from the towers.

We received eight pages of the FBI’s 17-slide PowerPoint presentation after filing a Freedom of Information Act request. We filed the request after a Huffington Post report cited the briefings, saying they “left many participants in tears.”

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NSA Foia (Text)

The presentation is marked “law enforcement sensitive,” and the FBI said they withheld nine slides to protect law enforcement tactics.    

The audio and video clips used in the lessons were originally exhibits from the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, currently serving a life sentence in federal prison in Colorado for his role in the attacks. (The clips are stored at a court website, which advises listener discretion.)

Spokespeople for the FBI and the military at Guantanamo did not respond to requests for more details about the briefings, so it’s not clear how often they are given, or when they started. The released slides also don’t show anything about current detainees, so we don’t know how the FBI relates them to 9/11.

Categories: Media, Politics

Podcast: Inside the High-Cost Lending Industry

August 26, 2013 - 12:59pm

High-cost lenders have long offered payday and installment loans to those with bad credit as a quick way to get cash in an emergency without any questions or hassle. But with annual percentage rates that can exceed 400 percent, consumers can unknowingly get trapped in a cycle of debt.

Paul Kiel joins Steve Engelberg on the podcast this week to discuss his series investigating high-cost lenders, the difference between payday and installment loans, and how the industry has managed to survive in state after state despite attempts to ban these products.

You can read more about high-cost lenders on our series page, Debt Inc. You can also listen to this podcast on iTunes and Stitcher.

Categories: Media, Politics