Since 9/11, the Government Might Know You're Reading This
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Sun, Sep. 11, 2011
Commentary: Since 9/11, the government might know you're reading this
American Civil Liberties Union
"If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about."
Many Americans have said this, or heard it, when discussing the expanded
surveillance capabilities the government has claimed since 9/11. But, it
turns out you should be concerned. Just ask peace activists in
Pittsburgh, anti-death penalty activists in Maryland, Ron Paul
supporters in Missouri, an anarchist in Texas, groups on both sides of
the abortion debate in Wisconsin, Muslim-Americans and many others who
pose no threat to their communities.
Some of them were labeled as terrorists in state and federal databases
or placed on terror watch-lists, impeding their travel, misleading
investigators and putting these innocent Americans at risk.
The Fourth Amendment requirement that you must be suspected of
wrongdoing before the government searches your private records risks
becoming a quaint notion. Congress weakened the laws designed to protect
our privacy, while the executive branch secretly re-interprets or simply
ignores the law with no consequence.
While your privacy is being sacrificed, there's little evidence the new
spying programs are catching terrorists.
The question should be, "If you're not doing anything wrong, why is the
government snooping on you?"
After 9/11, Congress hastily passed the Patriot Act, the first of many
changes to surveillance laws making it easier for the government to spy
on you without having any evidence, or even suspicion you've done
something wrong, often with no meaningful judicial oversight.
These loosened surveillance laws provide access to a growing trove of
electronic information about your everyday life: who you talk to or
e-mail, where you shop, your credit rating, the websites you visit,
where you bank, what you read and more; without having to show a judge
any evidence you've done anything wrong.
With a National Security Letter, the FBI can go directly to a bank or
internet service provider and compel them to turn over records on people
who are not even suspected of having terrorist ties. Audits of the FBI's
use of this tool discovered that 40-50,000 of these letters are issued
If the government wants to make a really deep grab for information, it
can go to a secret intelligence court and obtain an order for 'any
tangible thing' or a year-long directive for bulk collection of your
communications coming into and out of United States.
The FBI has also claimed new powers to investigate you using
"assessments," which allow unlimited physical surveillance, using
informants, and conducting interviews of neighbors or co-workers, all
without having any indication you are engaged in illegal activity or
pose a national security threat.
The FBI opened more than 82,000 of these assessments from March 2009 to
March 2011, only 3,315 of which discovered any information to justify
starting an investigation. But the FBI keeps all of the personal
information gathered in the 79,000 cases that found no wrongdoing,
These are the programs we know about. Secret government surveillance
programs, like the National Security Agency's illegal warrantless
wiretapping program, rely on secret re-interpretations of the law to
justify ignoring the law.
Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee,
believes most Americans would be shocked to know how broadly the
government interprets the Patriot Act. He recently said there is a, "gap
between what the public thinks the law says and what the American
government secretly thinks the law says."
There is little evidence these spying programs have thwarted attacks.
Inspectors general of key security agencies who reviewed the NSA
warrantless wiretapping program found no hard evidence the program made
us safer, despite its unprecedented scope. Similarly, though the FBI
made close to 150,000 National Security Letter requests from 2003 to
2005, the Department of Justice Inspector General documented only one
conviction in a terrorism case using the data during that period, and
found no instance in which they helped prevent an actual terrorist plot.
Investigating innocent people doesn't help find guilty people. Spying on
innocents makes us less safe by diverting security resources from
investigations with actual suspicion of wrongdoing.
But rather than learn from these results, the government demands more
authority. Last year, it asked to get sensitive records about people's
internet use without warrants, and this year, it is proposing a broad
new cyber-security scheme allowing communication providers to routinely
turn over our private information to the Department of Homeland Security.
With so many well-documented cases of abuse, it's long past time for
Congress to narrow these surveillance authorities and hold the
intelligence agencies publicly accountable.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michelle Richardson is a legislative counsel with the American Civil
Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office, focusing on national
security issues such as the Patriot Act, warrantless surveillance and
state secrets. She can be reached by email at media@....
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the
opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the
views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.
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Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
-- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"