Friday, April 28, 2006

FBI probes 3,500 without warrants

In a report required as part of the renewal of the Patriot Act, the Justice Department said Friday that the FBI secretly sought information on 3,501 U.S. citizens and legal residents last year. The report covers some but not all National Security Letters, which let the government obtain records without a judge's approval or a subpoena.

3,500 is fewer people than had been feared, although the report doesn't count "requests for subscriber information", so the true number is substantially higher. But I continue to be mystified why we would grant our government permission to spy on whomever it wants whenever it wants. It's not just that it invites abuse and is inimical to liberty. If there's not enough substantiation to get a warrant or a subpoena -- which aren't very hard to get in the first place -- that's reasonably good evidence that the surveillance is unwarranted.

Further, if we know enough about a suspect to demand their records, then we know enough about them to investigate them through other, less violative means. This isn't like warrantless wiretaps, which in the Hollywood scenarios favored by supporters offer at least the possibility of preventing an imminent attack. As the Washington Post explained in November, NSLs are investigative tools, not emergency interventions.

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.

(snip)

Since the Patriot Act, the FBI has dispersed the authority to sign national security letters to more than five dozen supervisors -- the special agents in charge of field offices, the deputies in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, and a few senior headquarters officials. FBI rules established after the Patriot Act allow the letters to be issued long before a case is judged substantial enough for a "full field investigation." Agents commonly use the letters now in "preliminary investigations" and in the "threat assessments" that precede a decision whether to launch an investigation.

In other words, agents use warrantless snooping to decide if they're going to launch a full-scale investigation. Warrantless searches have become a first and routine step, instead of a narrow and extreme exception to the law.

I am appalled.

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7 Comments:

Anonymous maxtrue said...

And consider this: CIA and NSA to be granted power to arrest for any felony committed in their presence. House Bill to include stronger measures against leaking Geez....a secret force to arrest leakers and warrentlessly uncover any felony. How would that hold up in "what" court? Perhaps the Democrats retaing the House would not be the pyrrhic victory some conservatives think it will be. At least Democrats could slow the decline of informed debate through the unregulated expansion of exectutive power.

4/28/2006 10:06 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

My first reaction was "oh, you have got to be kidding." But no. Giving police powers to an intelligence agency? Great idea!

When did we get on this express train to a police state? I'm not an alarmist or conspiracy theorist by nature, but there seems to be no end to this sort of nonsense.

4/28/2006 10:25 PM  
Anonymous maxtrue said...

Agreed and I see a connection between the "leaks" and this unprecedented growth in exectutive power. Global Strike contains unusual powers including pre-emptive nukes. The National Security Service is another brainchild. As this secret power grows and Eisenhower spins, the number of leaks grow. This lawyer sums the situation up Security v Liberty I just had this argument at Centerfield. I believe this power expansion which the new court might uphold is far beyond the War Power Resolution of 1973. The Constitution specifically declares that elected officals and the courts must uphold the Constitution, laws and treaty obligations when ratified by Congress. The more secret government becomes and more suspect in its submission to review and US law, the more we need protected channels for leaks. Congress is sleeping here. The public is confused about IPS snooping and its implication when tied to other federal moves. Soon informed debate will be reduced to sanitized media bias, worried representitives watching the polls, and desperate bloggers. Like Bobby at Centerfield said, even the recent General Criticism of Rumsfeld and Bush is reduced to the binary code of partisan politics and the spectrum of options and reason is scrambled. In this polarized cloud will the growth of secret security power erode the principles of the Constitutional process and the necessity of informed public debate to decide the direction America sails?

4/28/2006 11:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why would you be "appalled" that our government is trying to stop a terrorist attack before it happens....instead of only reacting after it happens? The article says this ...."allows the executive branch of government to obtain records about people in terrorism and espionage investigations." Why on earth would you object to people in terrorism and espinonage investigations to have their records checked out? If there's nothng there, nothing happens to them. If there is something there, we prevent another attack. And stop with the "police state" mantra. Democrats signed onto the Patriot Act too!

4/29/2006 6:09 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

I'm not appalled that we're trying to stop attacks before they happen. But we're not using warrantless searches to check out suspects in terrorist investigations. We're using warrantless searches to decide if they should become subjects of a terrorist investigation.

As I have said repeatedly: by all means, snoop and eavesdrop on terrorist suspects. But if they're "U.S. persons" -- a term that includes U.S. citizens and legal residents -- get a warrant first.

And in any case, warrantless searches should not be a first and routine step in anything.

4/30/2006 9:14 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

P.S.: Democrats supporting the Patriot Act does nothing to assuage or refute "police state" worries.

4/30/2006 9:15 AM  
Blogger Dyre42 said...

Agreed.

We're seeing the slippery slope the Patriot act created turn into a downward spiral.

5/01/2006 9:23 AM  

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