Agents scrutinize all in name of surveillance
The government dramatically increased its monitoring of U.S. citizens after Sept. 11, in ways that even some Bush allies now question.
Josh Meyer / LA Times | September 11 2006
WASHINGTON - As Americans consider whether they are more safe or less five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, one thing is certain: They are being monitored by their own government in ways unforeseen before 19 terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Within minutes of the strikes, U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence-gathering authorities mobilized to find the culprits and prevent another attack. They ramped up the tapping of Americans' phone calls and voicemails. They watched Internet traffic and e-mails as never before. They tailed greater numbers of people and into places previously deemed off-limits, such as mosques.
They clandestinely accessed bank and credit card transactions and school records. They monitored travel. And they broke into homes without notice, looking for signs of terrorist activity and copying entire file cabinets and computer hard drives.
Authorities even tried to get inside peoples' heads, using supercomputers and "predictive" software to analyze enormous amounts of personal data about them and their friends and associates in an effort to foretell who might become a terrorist, and when.
In the five years since the attacks, the scope and breadth of domestic surveillance has steadily increased, according to interviews with dozens of current and former U.S. officials and privacy experts.
Some of these programs have been debated and approved by the courts and Congress - the traditional checks against unjustified intrusions on Americans' right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment.
But others have not, and some of them are operating without the knowledge or approval of judicial and legislative overseers, officials and experts say.
Two such classified programs have been disclosed by the media, over the objections of the Bush administration. One involves the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping of suspicious phone calls and e-mails into and out of the United States. The other is an effort by the Treasury Department and the CIA to monitor international bank transfers.
Beyond top secret
Privacy experts believe that some of the activity is so secret that none but a small circle of top Bush administration officials and operational support personnel know about it - even though Congressional leaders are legally required to be notified.
"The White House simply refuses to be straight with us about what they're up to," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who says he has pressed unsuccessfully for answers as a member of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, which entitles him to classified briefings on the subject.
In response, administration officials say that they have the authority to conduct whatever surveillance is under way, in part due to the special war powers granted to President Bush by the Congress a week after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In a speech Thursday, Bush lobbied Congress for updated and expanded surveillance powers, saying they are needed to keep pace with a stealthy and technologically savvy enemy.
Meanwhile, the domestic surveillance effort continues within virtually every U.S. counter-terrorism, law-enforcement and intelligence agency.
The programs comprise actual surveillance of Americans' activities and communications, and "dataveillance," the practice of mining the vast amounts of personal data compiled on Americans.
On both fronts, the NSA is leading the effort from its headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., just outside Washington, D.C.
Robert Deitz, general counsel for the NSA, told Congress last week that the NSA's primary mission since Sept. 11 has been to develop ways of eavesdropping on al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that have used cutting-edge technologies to stay one step ahead of their pursuers.
The NSA has improved its ability to monitor the entire spectrum of communications, including fiber-optic and wireless transmissions, instant messages, BlackBerry e-mails and voice conversations sent over the Internet, say officials and experts.
They add that the intelligence community may not be breaking any laws because these kinds of communication might not be covered under loosely worded federal laws that don't account for advances in technology.
Several congressional officials and privacy experts said they believe the NSA also tracks the movement of "persons of interest" by the electronic signals emitted by their cell phones and the global positioning navigation system in the vehicles they drive.
Letter to search
On the ground, the FBI has led the way on the low-tech surveillance front, using little-known powers given to it under the USA Patriot Act and other post-Sept. 11 policies.
Before Sept. 11, virtually all FBI surveillance was authorized by court-approved warrants and subpoenas issued through federal grand juries, which have some measure of oversight by citizen jurors and judges.
Since then, however, the FBI has dramatically increased the use of "National Security Letters," which allow agents to obtain information on people they deem suspicious with little probable cause and without judicial approval. Unlike traditional search warrants, the "target" does not have to be notified.
FBI agents are also using what are known as "sneak-and-peek" warrants on a wider scale, entering hundreds of homes clandestinely to gather intelligence and copy computers and files, again without notification.
And they have conducted surveillance on antiwar, religious, civil rights and environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Treasury Department agents have directed searches of bank records and other financial information in more than 4,000 cases, usually without notifying the U.S.-based individuals, companies, charities and nonprofit organizations, interviews and documents show.
The U.S. military has a program known as "Threat and Local Observation Notice," or TALON, which compiles reports of suspicious activity in and around military installations.
Under TALON, military intelligence squads have monitored Americans at scores of events, including religious and antiwar protests, and filed suspicious action reports, according to records obtained by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Many government officials and privacy experts say the most alarming expansion in domestic surveillance involves the use of computers and the Internet.
Because gadget-happy consumers are snapping up the latest high-technology devices and online services to make life easier, authorities and private data brokers now have easy access to a digitized footprint of their activities and interests. Phone records, political preferences and purchasing habits are now only mouse clicks away from government agents.
After Sept. 11, government agencies began combining information collected by private companies with their own storehouses of intelligence. Authorities then used "social networking" software to map relationships among large groups of people in America and overseas. And they used "predictive" software to determine terrorism risks associated with individuals based on their activities, purchases, personal quirks and habits.
In 2004, an investigation by the Government Accountability Office found 199 U.S. government uses of data mining, 54 of which used private-sector data, including credit-card records, Internet logs and other information, some of which was of questionable accuracy.
"This has to be largest intrusion on privacy that we have ever seen in the history of this country, undoubtedly," said James Dempsey, policy director for the nonpartisan Center for Democracy and Technology and a former Congressional staffer.
One former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with even the most secret surveillance and data-mining programs defended them, saying that when combined, they form a nearly all-encompassing web that is critically important to the overall counter-terrorism effort.
He said the programs have been hugely successful in catching individual terrorists and in allowing authorities to home in on geographic "hot spots" and ways that terrorist cells communicate and operate.
"If you lose programs like these, you rip a huge hole out of the hide of protection we have put in place around the United States," the former official said. "They are tremendously important, in ways people cannot even imagine."
But even some supporters of such programs believe the administration's failure to disclose them to Congress and the courts could lead to a Constitutional showdown, and soon.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote recently to President Bush that he had learned of "some alleged intelligence community activities about which our committee has not been briefed.
"If these allegations are true, they may represent a breach of responsibility by the administration, a violation of the law, and, just as importantly, a direct affront to me and the members of this committee who have so ardently supported efforts to collect information on our enemies," wrote Hoekstra, a staunch Bush ally.
"The U.S. Congress," Hoekstra added, "simply should not have to play Twenty Questions to get the information that it deserves under our Constitution."
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