Unprecedented Powers for Warrantless Surveillance
The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) amounts to a sweeping database housing information and surveillance records of people the government suspects have ties to terrorism. It is a horrendous monstrosity of Orwellian proportions.
And it just got worse. As a meager restriction on its assault on the Fourth Amendment, the NCTC, was previously supposed to immediately destroy intelligence information about Americans when there were no clear ties to terrorism. But now, the Obama administration – without any public debate or transparency with Congress – has granted new powers to the NCTC.
The rules now allow the little-known National Counterterrorism Center to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them. That is a departure from past practice, which barred the agency from storing information about ordinary Americans unless a person was a terror suspect or related to an investigation.
Now, NCTC can copy entire government databases—flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited. Data about Americans “reasonably believed to constitute terrorism information” may be permanently retained.
The changes also allow databases of U.S. civilian information to be given to foreign governments for analysis of their own. In effect, U.S. and foreign governments would be using the information to look for clues that people might commit future crimes.
“It’s breathtaking” in its scope, said a former senior administration official familiar with the White House debate.
How does the Obama administration justify this radical Orwellian approach to domestic surveillance? With a promise and a kiss. The President seems to think any government measure, no matter how unconstitutional, is perfectly acceptable so long as this meaningless stipulation is uttered along with it: “Counterterrorism officials say they will be circumspect with the data,” the WSJ reports. “The guidelines provide rigorous oversight to protect the information that we have, for authorized and narrow purposes,” says Alexander Joel, Civil Liberties Protection Officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In other words: we promise we’ll be good.
There were murmurs about this news way back in March. “Following the failed terrorist attack in December 2009, representatives of the counterterrorism community concluded it is vital for NCTC to be provided with a variety of datasets from various agencies that contain terrorism information,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement late Thursday. “The ability to search against these datasets for up to five years on a continuing basis as these updated guidelines permit will enable NCTC to accomplish its mission more practically and effectively.”
Blogger Marcy Wheeler wrote at the time that “To justify this power grab,” advocates “point to two attacks that had nothing to do with the length of data retention: the Nidal Hasan attack, in which information on his conversations with Anwar al-Awlaki hadn’t been shared throughout the government, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in which his suspect status hadn’t been loaded into the no-fly list.”
“They don’t, however, point to a concrete example where 5 year old data of US persons might have helped solve an actual terror attack,” she added. In other words, the government is using examples of its past failings to justify more surveillance powers.
“It is a vast expansion of the government’s surveillance authority,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Total Information Awareness appears to be reconstructing itself,” Rotenberg said, referring to the Defense Department’s post-9/11 intelligence program that was killed in 2003 because of privacy concerns.
The Bush administration’s attempt to vastly expand the government’s surveillance authority was met with considerable resistance from the public and from Democrats. Not now, though. The difference with the Obama administration’s tyranny is twofold. The first: he is a Democrat, and the Republican Party isn’t about to check him on this score (nor is his own party). The second is perhaps more important, and the WSJ explains it perfectly: “For one thing, the debate happened behind closed doors.”