Expanded Spying on US Citizens Didn’t Wait for FISA Bill

One of the things I think we have all learned to appreciate about the Bush Administration is the speed with which they prove they lied to you. Mere weeks after Congress was assured by both DNI Mike McConnell and HS Sec Chertoff that the police-state powers to spy on Americans in the FISA bill would NEVER be used for data-=mining, the Washington Post revealed Saturday that they’ve already started doing just that.

The U.S. government is collecting electronic records on the travel habits of millions of Americans who fly, drive or take cruises abroad, retaining data on the persons with whom they travel or plan to stay, the personal items they carry during their journeys, and even the books that travelers have carried, according to documents obtained by a group of civil liberties advocates and statements by government officials.

The personal travel records are meant to be stored for as long as 15 years, as part of the Department of Homeland Security‘s effort to assess the security threat posed by all travelers entering the country. Officials say the records, which are analyzed by the department’s Automated Targeting System, help border officials distinguish potential terrorists from innocent people entering the country.

(emphasis added)

Sure they do. But then, the way this came to light suggests that it wasn’t so much the War on Terror they had in mind as the War on Drugs.

[N]ew details about the information being retained suggest that the government is monitoring the personal habits of travelers more closely than it has previously acknowledged. The details were learned when a group of activists requested copies of official records on their own travel. Those records included a description of a book on marijuana that one of them carried and small flashlights bearing the symbol of a marijuana leaf.

I’ve been saying for years that all these spying tools – FISA, NSL’s, satellite networks, data-mining of telecommunications companies – that were explained and excused as a way to prevent terrorist attacks were going to end up becoming standard tools of ordinary police work even in the (extremely) unlikely event that the Feds kept their promises about how the tools would be used. This little peek into precisely what kind of data is being mined is more evidence that that is in fact what’s happening.

The plain, bald fact of the matter is that criminal investigators – as the NSL scandal showed – are lazy as hell. They will cheerfully use any tool offered to them that provides information they don’t have to stir from their desks and their donuts to get. The FBI used NSL’s to illegally obtain information on drug smugglers, tax cheats, stock swindlers, mobsters, illegal gambling, prostitution rings, and a host of other workaday crimes by openly lying on the NSL form that their investigation concerned a “terrorist emergency” – an “emergency” which in virtually all of the cases investigated was non-existent. Back in March I wrote:

Law enforcement agencies are notoriously lazy investigators, infamously hostile to legal restrictions (especially when they?re required to actually follow them), prone to grabbing chances to skip steps and cut corners whenever possible, and congenitally certain that every case they?re working on is urgent. Left alone, as they have been way too often in the past, violations of what they consider ?technicalities? invariably occur, and the less the supervision, the greater the scope and number of violations. What went on at the FBI for 4 years fits that pattern rather neatly, and it?s the reason Feingold fought so hard to kill the provision of the PATRIOT Act that allowed it.

Misuse of such a tool by law enforcement was as predictable as the presence of hookers at a Republican convention. If the Congress was willing to give it to them virtually without legal restrictions – at least none they needed to feel they had to pay attention to – then it, too, was done deliberately. The Pubs were ?removing the handcuffs? that, in their view (as they?ve said over and over for 40 years), kept the police and the FBI from being able to do their jobs.

The ATS is being used, predictably, in exactly the same way, only at a much more comprehensive level.

The Automated Targeting System has been used to screen passengers since the mid-1990s, but the collection of data for it has been greatly expanded and automated since 2002, according to former DHS officials.

(emphasis added)

There’s virtually no possible legitimate excuse for collecting information about what we read. There’s only one thing this could be about.

The activists alleged that the data collection effort, as carried out now, violates the Privacy Act, which bars the gathering of data related to Americans’ exercise of their First Amendment rights, such as their choice of reading material or persons with whom to associate. They also expressed concern that such personal data could one day be used to impede their right to travel.

The federal government is trying to build a surveillance society,” said John Gilmore, a civil liberties activist in San Francisco whose records were requested by the Identity Project, an ad-hoc group of privacy advocates in California and Alaska. The government, he said, “may be doing it with the best or worst of intentions. . . . But the job of building a surveillance database and populating it with information about us is happening largely without our awareness and without our consent.”

(emphasis added)

“A surveillance society.” That’s what they want, and protecting us from terrorists really has nothing to do with it. The deeply authoritarian Cheney Administration wants the ability to spy on everyone. Period. Aided by the authoritarian GOP and authoritarian Blue Dog Dems, they’re apparently going to get it.

Or do they already have it?

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