Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

  FBI: We don't need no stinkin' warrants

And here you thought the Patriot Act was there to protect you. Little did you suspect it's the government you need protection from. Here's what your Constitution has to say about searches and seizure of personal effects:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

You'd be hard pressed to find a single government agency nowadays that does not flout the law. The FBI, for example, has such free rein under the Patriot Act that more and more their agents simply dispense with any nonsense about getting warrants at all or having to go to court to chat with a judge. Scores of FBI managers in various cities around the U.S. have the power, on their own say so, to issue "National Security Letters" to businesses or non-profits or libraries, and demand that they fork over citizens' personal information.

Last November the Washington Post reported that the Bush administration issues over 30,000 National Security Letters per year. Not to worry. These NSLs, we were reassured by 'senior FBI officials', just involved sweeps of transactional information. It wasn't really snooping into our actual affairs, you see, it was just playing with puzzle pieces.

A national security letter cannot be used to authorize eavesdropping or to read the contents of e-mail. But it does permit investigators to trace revealing paths through the private affairs of a modern digital citizen. The records it yields describe where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work.

Let's not forgot to mention 'the books he's checked out of the library'. And all the info collected went into government data bases. Hey, why throw good information away when you can keep it forever somewhere?

Two years ago, Ashcroft rescinded a 1995 guideline directing that information obtained through a national security letter about a U.S. citizen or resident "shall be destroyed by the FBI and not further disseminated" if it proves "not relevant to the purposes for which it was collected." Ashcroft's new order was that "the FBI shall retain" all records it collects and "may disseminate" them freely among federal agencies.

The same order directed the FBI to develop "data mining" technology to probe for hidden links among the people in its growing cache of electronic files. According to an FBI status report, the bureau's office of intelligence began operating in January 2004 a new Investigative Data Warehouse, based on the same Oracle technology used by the CIA. The CIA is generally forbidden to keep such files on Americans.

In short, Big Brother is keeping a list and, yes, checking it twice. The FBI disputed the Washington Post's figure of 30,000 but never provided its own statistics, until last week.

On Friday evening, in one of the White House's typical document dumps, the Justice Department informed Congressional leaders that it had issued more than 9,200 National Security Letters in 2005. Here is Tuesday's story in the Washington Post.

The report, released late Friday, represents the first official count of NSL use. It was required under legislation that extended the USA Patriot Act anti-terrorism law.

The count does not include other such letters that are issued by the FBI to obtain more limited subscriber information from companies, such as a person's name, address or other identifying data, according to the report. Sources have said that would include thousands of additional letters and may be the largest category of NSLs issued...

The government previously has declined to reveal how many NSLs have been issued by the FBI and criticized the Post report as inaccurate. A Justice Department official said yesterday that the department would not comment on how many more NSLs have been issued for subscriber data only.

In other words, the 9,200 National Security Letters involved snooping into the detailed personal information, or "effects", of more than 3,500 people. So far, they're not saying how many other NSLs were issued last year for that "transactional" information they're going to toss into their data-mining hopper. So it could be that the sum total of 30,000 NSLs reported last November by the Post was wrong, or maybe not. But if wrong, was it too high or too low?

Yesterday in the Senate, Senator Feingold asked FBI Director Mueller about the Justice Department's Friday-evening report. Here is the story in the NY Times

Mr. Feingold noted that the requests made for national security letters was a "far, far larger" total than the number of requests for data on individuals made to businesses last year under another provision of the Patriot Act known as Section 215.

"I fear that the reason might be that under 215 you have to go before a judge, and you don't under N.S.L.," he said.

Sadly, the FBI prefers to use the Act's provisions for National Security Letters to execute an end run around the Constitution.

This is all the more disturbing because those provisions were ruled unconsitutional back in 2004 by U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in John Doe v. John Ashcroft. As we see from Friday's Justice Department figures, that hasn't even put a crimp in the FBI's style.


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