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Expanded surveillance program stirs controversy in Sweden

International Herald Tribune | January 30, 2007
Ivar Ekman

STOCKHOLM: Sweden's government has proposed a far-reaching wiretapping program that, some experts say, could rival the Bush administration's controversial warrantless eavesdropping program in scope.

The proposal, unveiled last week by the center-right government, has come under fire as overly intrusive and at odds with Sweden's political culture. Even the Swedish Security Service, this country's equivalent of the FBI, called the proposal "foreign to our form of government."

The core of the proposal gives the organization responsible for signal intelligence, the National Defense Radio Establishment, the power to tap into all electronic communications that cross Sweden's borders. At present, the agency is limited to carrying out wireless surveillance, mainly to follow military radio communications in Sweden's direct proximity.

In addition, the target of the surveillance is changed from "foreign military threats" to simply "foreign threats" an adjustment that is necessary "as an expression of a changed world," said Defense Minister Mikael Odenberg, who is responsible for the proposal.

"Thirty years ago, it was about listening to radar stations and military radio traffic to track troop movements in the east," Odenberg said in a telephone interview.

"Today the line between military and civilian threats is blurred, and threats can be radiological, terrorist attacks and so on."

The government hopes the proposal will pass a parliamentary vote in the spring and take effect this summer.

But it is not certain the proposal can become law in its current form. The government is awaiting comments from the Council on Legislation, a state body that rules on the constitutionality of draft legislation. Critics of the proposal hope it will get sent back to the drawing board either by the council or, later, by Parliament.

"This is an extremely intrusive program," said Anne Ramberg, general secretary of the Swedish Bar Association, "weak when it comes to protecting human rights and the rule of law."

In practical terms, the surveillance is to be carried out by computer monitoring of the mass of material telephone calls, e-mails, faxes and other forms of electronic communications using key phrases and broad pattern analysis. The target is not supposed to be individuals except "when it is of utmost importance," the proposal states.

Although "foreign" threats are designated as the main target, Swedes will also be monitored in part because communications crossing Sweden's borders have either a source or a recipient in Sweden, but also because the intricacies of modern communications mean that a lot of domestic Swedish communications cross borders.

The proposed system has many similarities to the much-criticized U.S. domestic surveillance program that began shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In that program, the National Security Administration was given the right to conduct wiretaps on U.S.-related international communications without a court warrant. Since the program was disclosed by The New York Times in 2005, the Bush administration has faced a host of civil suits, one of which, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, is currently under review in Cincinnati.

The Bush administration, in an apparent concession, recently agreed to give an independent court jurisdiction over the surveillance program.

The problem with the Swedish program, intelligence experts say, is that the broadened surveillance is not accompanied by legal safeguards like court warrants.

"What citizens should worry about is a kind of indiscriminate surveillance," said Wilhelm Agrell, a professor of intelligence analysis at Lund University. "In principle, there is no legal protection for the individual."

The proposal has also been criticized because it makes the line between police work and intelligence work unclear. That is what sparked the rather remarkable public bureaucratic battle in which the Swedish Security Service effectively criticized the government it serves.

This is not the first controversy to engulf the government of Prime Minster Fredrik Reinfeldt, which took office in October.

Cuts in the employment insurance system set off a battle with Sweden's powerful trade unions, and two of Reinfeldt's ministers had to resign within weeks of taking office over financial irregularities.

Critics of the surveillance plan can not be divided along political lines. The Odenburg proposal was based on a draft created by the former Social Democratic government, meaning that opposition criticism has been relatively muted.

At the same time, some of the most outspoken criticism has come from within Odenberg's own Moderate party. Henrik von Sydow, a Moderate legislator, wrote in an opinion article that the proposal meant "additional steps toward a Big Brother society."

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