Using powers granted under the USA Patriot Act, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has stepped up surveillance of journalists in an effort to plug leaks from a scandal-weary Bush administration.
Wiretaps, intercepts of electronic communications and daily monitoring of reporters’ activities are part of a program authorized by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalesm, Justice Department sources say.
Increased surveillance of journalists is only part of a stepped-up federal efforts to monitor day-to-day activities of Americans. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission set an 18-month deadline for broadband Internet Service Providers to make their systems “wiretap-ready.”
“This is like saying, `Everybody has to keep their doors unlocked because the FBI might need to get in,’” says Mark Rasch, a former Justice Department attorney who handled computer crime cases and now senior vice president and chief security counsel of Solutionary Inc., a computer security consulting company in Omaha. “The harm of everybody keeping their doors unlocked all the time is much greater than the benefit.”
In addition, the FBI is turning to outside “contract agencies” to not only supplement agency resources but also to provide less of a trail back to the White House. This includes exchanging information with U.S. “data brokers” which then sell that information to others. One such broker, Locatecell, was recently cited by Canadian authorities for selling cell phone numbers of public officials.
Security consultant A.J. Howell says he was contacted by the FBI about aiding their spying on Americans but turned the agency down.
“I don’t spy on my fellow Americans,” he says. Among the things he was asked to do was keep tabs on Washington-based reporters.
The government has contracts with private companies like Blackwater, staffed with former military special operations soldiers, to work inside American borders. Blackwater operatives were deployed in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrinia to provide domestic security but also has contracts for “information gathering” activities within the U.S.
This is not the first time the federal government has sought to bring in outside agencies to watch Americans. Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency DARPA tried to retain information mapping software company Groxis as part of the agencies project to monitor the day-to-habits of Americans but Paul Hawken, the company’s chairman, says he turned the agency down for “ethical reasons.” Hawken also says he also knows people with the National Security Agency who refused spy on Americans for Uncle Sam because of ethical concerns.
Some see strong parallels between what is happening now and what has happened in the past.
“During World War I, concerns about German saboteurs led to unrestrained domestic spying by U.S. Army intelligence operatives,” says Gene Healy, senior editor of the CATO institute in Washington. “Army spies were given free rein to gather information on potential subversives, and were often empowered to make arrests as special police officers. Occasionally, they carried false identification as employees of public utilities to allow them, as the chief intelligence officer for the Western Department put it, ‘to enter offices or residences of suspects gracefully, and thereby obtain data.’”
In her book Army Surveillance in America, historian Joan M. Jensen notes, “What began as a system to protect the government from enemy agents became a vast surveillance system to watch civilians who violated no law but who objected to wartime policies or to the war itself.”
“Over the last several years the FBI has been granted significantly expanded authority to undertake intelligence investigations in the United States,” says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, DC. EPIC recently won a federal court case seeking release of records of FBI abuse under the Patriot Act.
EPIC is joined by the American Bar Association which has its own concerns about abuses under the Patriot Act.
“The ABA is concerned that there is inadequate Congressional oversight of government investigations undertaken pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Act to assure that such investigations do not violate the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution,” says Michael S. Greco, President of ABA.
The White House and Justice Department declined to comment on the issues raised in this article.