David Kirkpatrick

October 20, 2009

Why FISA never needed reform in the first place

I’ve already done a post today on this excellent article by Julian Sanchez on the Obama administration and how it’s retaining some of the Bush administration’s overreaching tools for use in the “global war on terror.” So far the Obama administration has been a disappointment in not rolling back the beating U.S. civil liberties took in the Bush administration’s  panicked response to 9/11.

And as it turns out — and that I’ve argued repeatedly — the tools to fight international terrorists were firmly in place before 9/11, they were just implemented with Keystone Kop level competence.

From the second link:

The FISA Amendments Act is the successor to an even broader bill called the Protect America Act, which similarly gave the attorney general and director of national intelligence extraordinary power to authorize sweeping interception of Americans’ international communications. It was hastily passed in 2007 amid claims that the secret FISA Court had issued a ruling that prevented investigators from intercepting wholly foreign communications that traveled across US wires. Former Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell even claimed that FISA’s restrictions had rendered it impossible to immediately eavesdrop on Iraqi insurgents who had captured several American soldiers. The New York Post quoted tearful parents of the captured men expressing their horror at the situation and a senior Congressional staffer who alleged that “the intelligence community was forced to abandon our soldiers because of the law.”

Yet as a Justice Department official later admitted, the FISA law clearly placed no such broad restriction on foreign wire communications passing through the United States; rather, there had been a far more narrow problem involving e-mails for which the recipient’s location could not be determined. And as James Bamford explained in his essential 2008 book, The Shadow Factory, the delay in getting wiretaps running on the suspected kidnappers was the result of a series of missteps at the Justice Department, not the limits of FISA — no surprise, since even when FISA does require a warrant, surveillance may begin immediately in emergencies if a warrant is sought later. (The suspected kidnappers, by the way, turned out not to have been the actual kidnappers.) Yet on the basis of such claims, a panicked Congress signed off on almost limitless authority to vacuum up international communications — authority that we already know has resulted in systematic “overcollection” of purely domestic conversations, and even resulted in the interception of former President Bill Clinton’s e-mails.

February 16, 2008

NY Times story on wiretap overreach

Filed under: Politics, Technology — Tags: , , , — David Kirkpatrick @ 5:40 pm

This NY Times story is a little reminder why the privacy and government surveillance debates begun after 9/11, and continue today, are important.

From the linked article:

Bureau officials noticed a “surge” in the e-mail activity they were monitoring and realized that the provider had mistakenly set its filtering equipment to trap far more data than a judge had actually authorized.

The episode is an unusual example of what has become a regular if little-noticed occurrence, as American officials have expanded their technological tools: government officials, or the private companies they rely on for surveillance operations, sometimes foul up their instructions about what they can and cannot collect.

The problem has received no discussion as part of the fierce debate in Congress about whether to expand the government’s wiretapping authorities and give legal immunity to private telecommunications companies that have helped in those operations.

But an intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because surveillance operations are classified, said: “It’s inevitable that these things will happen. It’s not weekly, but it’s common.”

As a “little l” libertarian the concepts of personal privacy are very important to me, especially vis-a-vis government oversight. I don’t have anything to hide, but at the same time I don’t want a government agent peeking into my windows a few times a day.

Giving any government sweeping surveillance authorization is no different than allowing the government to force you to keep all your drapes and blinds cracked open a bit, with a light on in each room — or better yet just a system of cameras throughout your home, office and vehicle — so they can keep tabs on your activities. Just to ensure you have nothing to hide.

For all the Bush-43 authoritarians who say the government needs this oversight over all Americans to fight a small handful of fanatics, how do you feel about a Hillary presidency with the level of executive branch power, secrecy and lack of oversight this Bush administration set into motion and continues to fight for? I know that idea scares me more than a bit.