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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why Did the FBI Investigate Petraeus?

A couple articles questioning the propriety of the FBI's investigation. First, from Reason.com, is an article questioning whether it was interagency rivalry that led to the investigation.

The second article, from Foreign Policy magazine, raises the more basic issue of whether the FBI and other law enforcement should have such easy access to our private communications that even the fairly benign emails to Kelley (there were no explicit threats) allowed them to start snooping. The conclusion:
Regardless of what method the FBI used to read their allegedly explicit communications, the Daily Beast reported, "the FBI agents found no indication that it constituted a crime or a threat to national security. They confirmed this when they interviewed Broadwell and then Petraeus."

Incredibly, this didn't stop the investigation. And if privacy were any kind of priority, this again this should have been the end. The FBI has to comply with legally mandated "minimization" standards under law which, in theory, should prevent the bureau from snooping on personal conversations that do not reveal criminal conduct, even if its agents have permission to read all relevant communications to an investigation.

Instead, as the investigation deepened, top FBI officials were alerted, and they in turn told the director of national intelligence. Petraeus eventually resigned.

While these details may shock the average reader, these privacy-invasive tactics are used regularly by both federal and local law enforcement around the United States. In fact, as the New York Times reported, referring to Petraeus, "Law enforcement officials have said they used only ordinary methods in the case." The only difference here is the target was the director of the CIA and one of the most decorated soldiers in modern military history.

The Petraeus scandal -- or perhaps we should call it the FBI snooping scandal -- dovetailed with Google releasing its semi-annual transparency report, which again showed that government requests for ordinary user data continues to skyrocket. The last six months showed the U.S. government requesting data from Google alone on more than 12,000 users, a marked increase over the six months prior. And this number doesn't even include some Patriot Act demands, National Security Letters with gag orders, or secret FISA court orders for intelligence operations. As Google said in conjunction with the release of its report, "This is the sixth time we've released this data, and one trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise."

Congress is now demanding to know why it wasn't informed by the Justice Department about the details of the Petraeus affair earlier. Lawmakers should instead be worried about why the public was informed of these details at all, given that no crime was committed. And instead of investigating one man's personal life, they should investigate how to strengthen our privacy laws so this does not happen to anyone else.

The U.S. government has so far been unable to keep its colossal surveillance state in check. Now that it is so bloated it is eating itself, one hopes more people will finally pay attention.

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