Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Oh, My!

I'm always a little nonplussed when I find myself in agreement with conservatives, but I've recovered from the latest incident. It involves a research fellow with the Cato Institute, a free-market libertarian think-tank, and the mission creep of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Julian Sanchez really got it right in his opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times. The FBI is not only reaching to avoid any review of its investigative behavior, it's over-reaching.

Since the attack on 9/11 and the passage of the first Patriot Act, restraints against domestic spying have been loosened to the point where the FBI can wire tap and use other tools to investigate citizens even when there is no indication of illegal activity. Now, the FBI, on its own, has decided to loosen things even more.

Now the FBI says these lax limits on its power are still too cumbersome: The next edition of the bureau's operational manual will give agents leeway to search all those databases with no approval or explanation, without opening an assessment and creating a paper trail.

We've heard the complaint about "cumbersome" record-keeping before. According to a 2010 report from the Office of the Inspector General, FBI analysts refused to use an electronic system that would track demands for sensitive phone and Internet records, on the grounds that entering all that data was too burdensome. In reality, the inspector general found, employees were engaged in "widespread and serious misuse" of domestic spying authorities and sought to avoid oversight and accountability.

As the report noted, the lack of record-keeping means we may never know the full extent of the abuses, or even the true scale of legitimate spying. One thing is clear, however: The more snooping that is done without a paper trail, the less likely it is that abuses will be caught when they occur.
[Emphasis added]

In other words, the FBI will be able to act as it wills with no tracks left for a pesky inspector general. The government can spy on people who express an unpopular opinion and intimidate them into silence or into cooperation in spying on their neighbors. Again, all of this is done without judicial oversight or specific congressional approval.

Much of the growth of the surveillance state over the last decade has slid under the radar precisely because it's been done piecemeal. For example, the USA Patriot Act greatly expanded the FBI's ability to use what are called national security letters to obtain sensitive records without a court order. The letters are akin to subpoenas, demanding information about financial, phone or Internet transactions. When Congress granted this power to the agency, it was limited to "full investigations" based on specific evidence of a crime or security threat. But later the Justice Department quietly changed the rules to permit national security letters to be used in preliminary investigations based on mere suspicion. Within a few years, most of the letters were issued as part of such preliminary investigations. [Emphasis added]

The entire article deserves a full reading because Mr. Sanchez has really nailed. Then, it should be emailed or faxed to members of Congress with the suggestion that they haul some FBI backsides into the appropriate committee rooms for a chat on the rules of the game.

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