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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

USA Today: Why We Shouldn't Trust the Government

The USA Today editorial board has published an editorial warning about complacency in the face of widespread monitoring by the government. The main reason? No matter how benign it may be now, such information and techniques will be abused. From USA Today's editorial:

The message was clear: Nothing to worry about here. Trust us.

So what's not to like? The lessons of history. As Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn, said, "We know that when a capability exists, there's a potential for abuse." Safeguards like those in place today have repeatedly been overridden and promises like today's abandoned.

Flash back to programs created to deal with the "Red Menace" of the 1940s and '50s. The rising threat of communism spurred the intelligence agencies to collect telegrams sent overseas by foreign embassies — a twist on an old form of spying. Telecom companies of the day acquiesced in what was known as Project Shamrock. Then, in 1956, the FBI initiated a program called Cointelpro — for Counterintelligence Program — to disrupt Communist Party activities in the United States.

But by the 1960s, the programs had turned into lawless dragnets. The NSA was sucking up 150,000 telegrams a month, the vast majority of them sent by law-abiding Americans. Data were being traded among agencies. Meanwhile, the FBI was building dossiers on anyone that Director J. Edgar Hoover found suspicious, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. President Nixon created an enemies list and attempted to use the CIA to cover up the Watergate break-in.

Those abuses rocked the country in the mid-1970s when a Senate inquiry uncovered them. Congress created a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to prevent future abuses in the name of security.

Now, however, with the confluence of a terrorist threat and the existence of a once unimaginable array of computerized data, the country might need new protections, and complacency, particularly in Congress, is not the way to get them. It should gin up a robust debate, not gentle pats on the back and softball questions of the sort on display Tuesday.

On Monday, President Obama focused on what's not being collected without court orders — the contents of phone calls and the e-mails of U.S. citizens. That underplays how much can be learned from the details that are vacuumed up: numbers called, duration of calls and when the calls are made. Every parent on a family cellphone plan knows you can keep tabs on the kids simply by scanning the monthly bill.

On Tuesday, administration officials underscored the protections in place. For instance, phone records are deleted after five years, according to testimony. That's comforting, up to a point. But it is a policy, not a law. Future presidents can change it; future bureaucrats can ignore it; future scoundrels can use the records to dig up dirt on political opponents or even straying spouses.

No doubt, stopping terrorism requires tradeoffs. But it's not yet clear whether the foiled plots required the level of intrusiveness that's now routine. If history shows anything, it's that once government has the power to sweep up data, the power is used, and often abused.
And additional information shows that we should not trust the government even as to its testimony. It is clear that the head of the NSA deliberately misled Congress in earlier testimony where he stated that the NSA was not collecting information on Americans. Technically it was true because the FBI was obtaining the data then turning it over to the NSA. More broadly, it was patently false and misleading. He intended Congress to understand that no data collection was being undertaken.

So, why should we trust them now? As this story from the Daily Mail suggests, the intelligence agencies are merely circling the wagons. From the story:
The three-hour hearing had just wrapped up around 1 p.m. when NSA Director Keith Alexander turned to FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce and praised him for his testimony.

'Thank you, Sean,' Alexander said, according to a clip of the exchange that was first reported by Ben Doernberg.

'Tell your boss I owe him another friggin' beer,' he added.
 The Washington Examiner reports:
James Cole, deputy attorney general, testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that when it comes to metadata collection, "every now and then there may be a mistake."

Cole made the revelation while defending the National Security Agency against revelations that it collected and stored the phone records of innocent Americans. The use of such records are supposed to be limited to foreigners being targeted by an approved investigation, but sometimes, Cole says, "A wrong phone number is hit or a person who shouldn't have been targeted gets targeted because there's a mistake in the phone record."
 How are we supposed to know when such "mistakes" occur? The reports, if any, are classified. There is no recourse against the government, either for damages (if any) or to require them to delete the data.

Plus, it is more than just the collection of metadata. It is whole security and surveillance culture that has taken over Washington. RT News reports:
The FBI uses drones for domestic surveillance purposes, the head of the agency told Congress early Wednesday.

Robert Mueller, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, confirmed to lawmakers that the FBI owns several unmanned aerial vehicles, but has not adopted any strict policies or guidelines yet to govern the use of the controversial aircraft.
“Does the FBI use drones for surveillance on US soil?” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Mr Mueller during an oversight hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Yes,” Mueller responded bluntly, adding that the FBI’s operation of drones is “very seldom.”

Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) to elaborate, Mueller added, “It’s very seldom used and generally used in a particular incident where you need the capability.” Earlier in the morning, however, Mueller said that the agency was only now working to establish set rules for the drone program.
 So, FBI agents could be spying on boyfriends, or ex-wives, or the neighbor they don't like, or Tea Party groups that are critical of government spending, or churches that oppose abortion, or whomever, but we would never know.

That a secret court reviews "requests" is no protection because their decisions are secret, there is no review and oversight, and the laws are so broad that an intelligence agency could be acting within the law but still outside the bounds acceptable to the public.

Also, see this article on why Democrats love to spy on Americans (although this seems to be a bipartisan problem); and this article on former NSA employees that corroborate Snowden. 

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