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Yahoo, Communist China and Bush's America

November 7, 2007

In Washington Tuesday, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee savaged Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and General Counsel Michael Callahan for the company's involvement in the 2005 jailing of a Chinese dissident. But if their bipartisan criticism of Yahoo's behavior - cooperating with a Chinese government "subpoena-like document" to supply information about journalist accused of the "illegal provision of state secrets" - sounds disingenuous, it should. After all, those are trademark tactics of the Bush administration and its Republican amen corner in the aftermath of 9/11.
That Yahoo's accommodation with the information requests and censorship demands of the Chinese government is reprehensible, like that of its competitor Google, is beyond doubt. In April 2004, Yahoo China officials in Hong Kong officials were contacted by the Chinese government seeking the usage records that ultimately helped it identify journalist Shi Tao. Yahoo, receiving a "subpoena-like document" that declared "your office is in possession of items relating to a case of suspected illegal provision of state secrets to foreign entities," cooperated with Chinese investigators. As a result, Shi's home was raided in November and his computer confiscated. In March 2005, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
House Committee members of both parties delivered a firestorm of condemnation upon Yang and Callahan. "While technologically and financially you are giants," Chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA) said, "morally you are pygmies." Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) played the Hitler card, comparing Yahoo's acquiescence with the Chinese government to firms that cooperated with Nazi Germany during World War II:

"There certainly is a parallel here. People are being tortured and mistreated today because of that complicity."

Sadly for Americans, the analog for Yahoo's China syndrome may not be Adolf Hitler's Germany, but George W. Bush's United States.
The disturbing parallels begin with those Chinese "subpoena-like documents," which seem eerily similar to National Security Letters (NSLs) under the Patriot Act. In the wake of 9/11, the FBI now issues 30,000 NSLs a year, documents issued without warrants which demand telephone, electronic, financials of ordinary Americans merely suspected of ties to foreign spy organizations or terrorist groups. NSL recipients receive a gag order barring them from even disclosing their receipt of the letter. And as Connecticut librarian George Christian learned in November 2005, the language of the NSL even resembles Yahoo's experience in China, demanding "all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person" who accessed a specific library computer.
All of which adds more irony to the exchanges between the Committee and the Yahoo CEO and general counsel. For example, as the AP reported:

"I cannot ask our local employees to resist lawful demands and put their own freedom at risk, even if, in my personal view, the local laws are overbroad," Callahan said.
Lantos interrupted him.
"Why do you insist on repeating the phrase 'lawful orders'? These were demands by a police state," Lantos said.
"It's my understanding that under Chinese law these are lawful," Callahan responded after some hesitation.

Whether or not National Security Letters remain lawful in the United States is another question. In September, a federal judge ruled the FBI's use of NSLs an unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment. And in the wake of widespread abuses reported to Congress, even faithful Bush supporters like Dan Lungren (R-CA) and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) warned the FBI that "can't get away with this and expect to maintain public support for the tools that they need to combat terrorism."
Of course, the similarities between Communist China and George Bush's America don't end there. Like the Chinese government in the Shi case, the Bush administration and its amen corner believe journalists should prosecuted for revealing classified information highlighting its wrongdoing and criminal behavior.
Calls for the prosecution of both leakers and reporters followed the Washington Post CIA "black sites" and New York Times NSA domestic surveillance stories. (Of course, the outing of Valerie Plame was another issue altogether for Republicans.) For example, following the Times' revelations in December 2005 about President Bush's illegal NSA domestic spying scheme, President Bush raged about what he deemed "a shameful act" that is "helping the enemy". Claiming he didn't order an investigation, Bush added "the Justice Department, I presume, will proceed forward with a full investigation" At a subsequent press conference that same day, Alberto Gonzales suggested the retribution that was to come:

"As to whether or not there will be a leak investigation, as the President indicated, this is really hurting national security, this has really hurt our country, and we are concerned that a very valuable tool has been compromised. As to whether or not there will be a leak investigation, we'll just have to wait and see."

As it turned out, of course, there was a leak investigation. In August 2005, the FBI raided the home of Thomas M. Tamm, a veteran prosecutor and former official of the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR) within Gonzales' Justice Department. That was not sufficient for the President's echo chamber at publications like Commentary magazine, which renewed its call for the prosecution of the New York Times and its journalists James Risen and Eric Lichtblau for breaking the NSA story.
The parade of ironies at yesterday's Yahoo hearing hardly end there. Yahoo lawyer Callahan rightly came under withering assault for his misleading 2006 testimony that Yahoo had no idea about the nature of the Chinese government's investigation of Shi. Despite former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' repeated lies to Congress regarding the U.S. attorneys purge and his role in the NSA program, Republican Smith had the gall to ask:

"How could a dozen lawyers prepare another lawyer to testify before Congress without anyone thinking to look at the document that had caused the hearing to be called? This is astonishing."

And given all of the Bush administration's incompetence, ethical lapses and outright criminality from Katrina, the Iraq occupation and NSA spying to the prosectors purge, Dana Rohrbacher was furious that no Yahoo employees were disciplined or fired as a result of the handling of the Shi case. "You think," he asked sarcastically, "that sends the right message to your employees?"
That's a question the American people have been asking George W. Bush for almost seven years. And as Congress debates providing immunity to telecommunications and Internet firms for their cooperation with the U.S. government in its surveillance of American citizens, the questions shouldn't end there.


About

Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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