US Government Spying on Innocent Citizens, Just In Case
Remember when the Bush administration was spying on calls Americans made overseas without a warrant? Those were the good old days.
WSJ (“U.S. Terrorism Agency to Tap a Vast Database of Citizens”):
Top U.S. intelligence officials gathered in the White House Situation Room in March to debate a controversial proposal. Counterterrorism officials wanted to create a government dragnet, sweeping up millions of records about U.S. citizens—even people suspected of no crime.
Not everyone was on board. “This is a sea change in the way that the government interacts with the general public,” Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer of the Department of Homeland Security, argued in the meeting, according to people familiar with the discussions.
A week later, the attorney general signed the changes into effect.
Through Freedom of Information Act requests and interviews with officials at numerous agencies, The Wall Street Journal has reconstructed the clash over the counterterrorism program within the administration of President Barack Obama. The debate was a confrontation between some who viewed it as a matter of efficiency—how long to keep data, for instance, or where it should be stored—and others who saw it as granting authority for unprecedented government surveillance of U.S. citizens.
The rules now allow the little-known National Counterterrorism Center to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them. That is a departure from past practice, which barred the agency from storing information about ordinary Americans unless a person was a terror suspect or related to an investigation.
Now, NCTC can copy entire government databases—flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited. Data about Americans “reasonably believed to constitute terrorism information” may be permanently retained.
This is all information that the government had access to; what’s new here is that it’s being aggregated and stored. Oh, and it violates decades-old privacy laws in spirit but, apparently, not in letter:
Congress specifically sought to prevent government agents from rifling through government files indiscriminately when it passed the Federal Privacy Act in 1974. The act prohibits government agencies from sharing data with each other for purposes that aren’t “compatible” with the reason the data were originally collected.
But the Federal Privacy Act allows agencies to exempt themselves from many requirements by placing notices in the Federal Register, the government’s daily publication of proposed rules. In practice, these privacy-act notices are rarely contested by government watchdogs or members of the public. “All you have to do is publish a notice in the Federal Register and you can do whatever you want,” says Robert Gellman, a privacy consultant who advises agencies on how to comply with the Privacy Act.
As a result, the National Counterterrorism Center program’s opponents within the administration—led by Ms. Callahan of Homeland Security—couldn’t argue that the program would violate the law. Instead, they were left to question whether the rules were good policy.
Previous government proposals to scrutinize massive amounts of data about innocent people have caused an uproar. In 2002, the Pentagon’s research arm proposed a program called Total Information Awareness that sought to analyze both public and private databases for terror clues. It would have been far broader than the NCTC’s current program, examining many nongovernmental pools of data as well.
“If terrorist organizations are going to plan and execute attacks against the United States, their people must engage in transactions and they will leave signatures,” the program’s promoter, Admiral John Poindexter, said at the time. “We must be able to pick this signal out of the noise.”
Adm. Poindexter’s plans drew fire from across the political spectrum over the privacy implications of sorting through every single document available about U.S. citizens. Conservative columnist William Safire called the plan a “supersnoop’s dream.” Liberal columnist Molly Ivins suggested it could be akin to fascism. Congress eventually defunded the program.
The National Counterterrorism Center’s ideas faced no similar public resistance. For one thing, the debate happened behind closed doors. In addition, unlike the Pentagon, the NCTC was created in 2004 specifically to use data to connect the dots in the fight against terrorism.
Even after eight years in existence, the agency isn’t well known. “We’re still a bit of a startup and still having to prove ourselves,” said director Matthew Olsen in a rare public appearance this summer at the Aspen Institute, a leadership think tank.
Frankly, while the Obama administration has been even more cavalier about the rule of law in conducting the war on terror than its predecessor, it’s been much shrewder in going about its business. Despite pledges to be the most transparent administration in history, it has gone about its business with incredible stealth. Telling Congress or the American people about programs that might be controversial is just asking for trouble; so, they wisely keep these sort of things to themselves. Ditto, for that matter, things like going to war with new countries; if you don’t ask Congress, they can’t tell you no.
Oh, and as a bonus:
The changes also allow databases of U.S. civilian information to be given to foreign governments for analysis of their own. In effect, U.S. and foreign governments would be using the information to look for clues that people might commit future crimes.
I mean, what could go wrong? And, at any rate, your government is interested in your input:
Homeland Security is currently working out the details to give the NCTC three data sets—the airline-passenger database known as APIS; another airline-passenger database containing information about non-U.S. citizen visitors to the U.S.; and a database about people seeking refugee asylum. It previously agreed to share databases containing information about foreign-exchange students and visa applications.
Once the terms are set, Homeland Security is likely to post a notice in the Federal Register. The public can submit comments to the Federal Register about proposed changes, although Homeland Security isn’t required to make changes based on the comments.
Sort of like a blog, I guess.