Sunday, November 06, 2005

Every Breath You Take, Every Move You Make ...

If you can get past a fair amount of confusing and eye-glazing prose, The Washington Post's Barton Gellman has an important story in Sunday's edition about the widespread use of a little-known weapon in the Patriot Act (boo! hiss!) quiver. The inconspicuous bugger is something called a National Security Letter, or NSL if you prefer, and the FBI can dispense them freely without a court order to obtain reams of information about law-abiding Americans who might have the most peripheral of connections -- if even that -- to a legitimate issue of national security.

Gellman writes:

"Issued by FBI field supervisors, national security letters do not need the imprimatur of a prosecutor, grand jury or judge. They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress. The executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.


"Senior FBI officials acknowledged in interviews that the proliferation of national security letters results primarily from the bureau's new authority to collect intimate facts about people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. Criticized for failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot, the bureau now casts a much wider net, using national security letters to generate leads as well as to pursue them. Casual or unwitting contact with a suspect -- a single telephone call, for example -- may attract the attention of investigators and subject a person to scrutiny about which he never learns.

"A national security letter cannot be used to authorize eavesdropping or to read the contents of e-mail. But it does permit investigators to trace revealing paths through the private affairs of a modern digital citizen. The records it yields describe where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work."

Read the entire story here. It's lengthy, but worth it.

The Subjective Scribe is on target with his assessment of the peril in allowing this level of spying on everyday Americans:

"The Founding Fathers believed in checks on power because they knew the risks for abuse of overreaching government authority. If in the name of national security we lose our basic liberties, then we have lost this War on Terror. The terrorists will have won because they accomplished what they wanted to — to destroy the American way of life."


At 10:21 PM, Blogger Ceres said...

It is absolutely amazing what has been embedded in The Patriot Act. The Bush administration has managed to suck a little bit of pride out of my American life everyday.


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