FISA grants warrant for dragnet of domestic calls — what’s next?
UPDATE: ‘What’s next?’ Less than 24 hours later and we can answer that question. It’s called total content awareness, or PRISM, reported tonight by The Washington Post.
“I’m just an average man, with an average life. I work from nine to five; hey hell, I pay the price. All I want is to be left alone in my average home; But why do I always feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone, and I always feel like somebody’s watching me.” — Kennedy William ‘Rockwell’ Gordy.
Writer and constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald has an explosive scoop out today: the super secret Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court granted the FBI a warrant that amounts to a virtual dragnet on all Verizon customers’ calls between the U.S and foreign countries (Correction: and all calls “wholly within the United States” ) from April 25 to July 19. This means tens of millions of calls will or have been tracked by the government.
Why the court granted this warrant is not explained in the document, found here. Someone leaked the warrant to Greenwald who called Verizon, FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA), which is handling all the data, and was unable to get further comment. Verizon, as noted in the warrant is gagged from talking about the order at all.
The dragnet will record the following things: all “metadata” of calls made from the U.S to foreign countries — on a “daily, ongoing basis” for the duration of the order — which includes “session identifying information.” These are the originating and terminating numbers on the calls. Metadata also includes telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, the time-stamp duration of each call, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) numbers, and “comprehensive communication routing information.”
Metadata does not include the names of the customers, addresses or billing records. All that would require individual warrants, noted Greenwald.
The FBI/NSA’s broad surveillance of domestic calls is unprecedented (that we know of) under the Obama Administration, but not entirely surprising. The ability to do all of this apparently falls under the Patriot Act [50 USC section 1861] or the “business records” provision of the legislation, passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11 (or at least this is the FBI’s apparent interpretation of it). The Patriot Act, the gift that keeps on taking.
Civil libertarians have warned from the beginning that these Patriot Act measures would eventually intrude on the privacy of ordinary Americans, but those voices were dismissed as paranoid and unpatriotic. Then the revelations of 2005 came: The Bush Administration had authorized the warrantless surveillance of Americans communicating with foreigners. As far as we know it never stopped, but the activity was codified in so called FISA “reforms” in 2008. President Barack Obama, then U.S Senator, signed off on that FISA bill and never looked back.
According to FISA, the Department of Justice filed 1,879 requests for searches in 2012 — 1,789 of them for electronic surveillance — a 6.7 percent increase over 2011. None of those warrants were denied. Some 15,229 requests for “national security letters,” which allow the government to snoop into American financial records under the Patriot Act were granted during the same year.
But what Greenwald is reporting is a entire step away from individual FISA warrants — it’s really elaborate data mining effort in which the FBI is looking for patterns and clues among the call information (much like the NSA’s secret data mining program under the Bush Administration). Agents will likely drill down further with new warrants (or not) when something among the ostensibly disparate numbers and codes draws their attention.
As Greenwald notes, “it is also unclear from the leaked document whether the three-month order was a one-off, or the latest in a series of similar orders.”
For years, groups like the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and individual lawmakers have warned that both the Bush and Obama administrations were abusing the Patriot Act and using their own interpretations, secretly, to spy on Americans. Each year, new revelations emerge to indicate they are doing just that. We have whistleblowers contending that they saw it happening up close and personal. Yet America continues to shrug as if to say, I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I care?
Next time you pick up the phone, let that thought comfort you, if you can.