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NSA Surveillance Illegally Targets Americans. Again.

April 16, 2009

Back in February 2006, Texas Senator John Cornyn led Congressional Republicans with his famous defense of President Bush's regime of illicit NSA domestic surveillance, "None of your civil liberties matter much after you're dead." Now, as the New York Times revealed today, one of those illegal targeted was apparently one of Cornyn's Capitol Hill colleagues. And as it turns out, this is the second time in six months the National Security Agency's lawless fishing expeditions have come to light.
As the Times documented, the NSA's sweeping interception of Americans' private phone calls and emails "went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year." Despite the loose requirement that targets of the warrantless eavesdropping had to be "reasonably believed" to be outside the United States, the NSA still needed court approval to monitor purely domestic communications. But in recent months, "operational and legal" problems led the agency to engage in "overcollection" of data from innocent Americans:

Several intelligence officials, as well as lawyers briefed about the matter, said the N.S.A. had been engaged in "overcollection" of domestic communications of Americans. They described the practice as significant and systemic, although one official said it was believed to have been unintentional...
While the N.S.A.'s operations in recent months have come under examination, new details are also emerging about earlier domestic-surveillance activities, including the agency's attempt to wiretap a member of Congress, without court approval, on an overseas trip, current and former intelligence officials said.

These revelations follow on the heels of an expose by ABC News last October which documented NSA personnel monitoring the private phone calls of Americans abroad.
Despite President Bush's repeated assurances that "I'm mindful of your civil liberties," NSA operators "hundreds of US citizens overseas have been eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home." According to two NSA staffers featured by ABC, the so-called "terrorist surveillance program" was used to listen in on the calls of American soldiers and aid workers overseas:

[Former Navy Arab linguist David Murfee] Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer...
"We knew they were working for these aid organizations," [former Army Reserves Arab linguist Adrienne] Kinne told ABC News. "They were identified in our systems as 'belongs to the International Red Cross' and all these other organizations. And yet, instead of blocking these phone numbers we continued to collect on them," she told ABC News.

For its part, the Obama Justice Department has taken steps to remedy the most recent abuses. According to a DOJ statement, the department "detected issues that raised concerns" and then "took comprehensive steps to correct the situation and bring the program into compliance" with the law and court orders. Attorney General Holder also sought approval from the FISA national security court to "to seek a renewal of the surveillance program only after new safeguards were put in place."
But as Glenn Greenwald highlighted today, Congress' 2007 codification of President Bushs' unconstitutional surveillance program continues to present predictable challenges for President Obama. Even as the Obama administration confronts massive abuse of the FISA process, its lawyers to the dismay of the President's supporters continue to advance the same broad state secrets arguments used by the Bush DOJ to claim government immunity from prosecution. Meanwhile, Republican leaders and their right-wing echo chamber continue to demand the prosecution of NSA whistle-blower Thomas Tamm and the New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau who first broke the story in December 2005. (Risen and Lichtblau also reported today's revelations in the Times.)
Meanwhile, Republican Senators Cornyn, Sessions and Roberts maintain "you really don't have any civil liberties if you're dead." Apparently in the America George W. Bush produced, not if you're living either.
UPDATE: Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein announced she would hold hearings to look into these latest allegations of NSA "overcollection."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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