Surveillance Powers Abused

[ Posted Thursday, October 9th, 2008 – 18:11 UTC ]

Two stories from the "power corrupts" department appeared this week, one on the state level and one on the federal level. Both just go to show, once again, that whenever sweeping surveillance powers are granted to those in authority the end result is almost always the same -- widespread abuse of such power to go after anyone the government takes a dislike to, rather than the "terrorists" who are the supposed targets of the law.

The first comes from the state of Maryland. It seems they decided that anyone voicing any opinion not in support of the government was a terrorist. From the Washington Post article (titled "Maryland Police Put Activists' Names On Terror Lists"):

The Maryland State Police classified 53 nonviolent activists as terrorists and entered their names and personal information into state and federal databases that track terrorism suspects, the state police chief acknowledged yesterday.

Police Superintendent Terrence B. Sheridan revealed at a legislative hearing that the surveillance operation, which targeted opponents of the death penalty and the Iraq war, was far more extensive than was known when its existence was disclosed in July.

The department started sending letters of notification Saturday to the activists, inviting them to review their files before they are purged from the databases, Sheridan said.

"The names don't belong in there," he told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It's as simple as that."

The surveillance took place over 14 months in 2005 and 2006, under the administration of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). The former state police superintendent who authorized the operation, Thomas E. Hutchins, defended the program in testimony yesterday. Hutchins said the program was a bulwark against potential violence and called the activists "fringe people."

Sheridan said protest groups were also entered as terrorist organizations in the databases, but his staff has not identified which ones.

Stunned senators pressed Sheridan to apologize to the activists for the spying, assailed in an independent review last week as "overreaching" by law enforcement officials who were oblivious to their violation of the activists' rights of free expression and association. The letter, obtained by The Washington Post, does not apologize but admits that the state police have "no evidence whatsoever of any involvement in violent crime" by those classified as terrorists.

It goes on to say:

The police also entered the activists' names into the federal Washington-Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area database, which tracks suspected terrorists. One well-known antiwar activist from Baltimore, Max Obuszewski, was singled out in the intelligence logs released by the ACLU, which described a "primary crime" of "terrorism-anti-government" and a "secondary crime" of "terrorism-anti-war protesters."

Sheridan said that he did not think the names were circulated to other agencies in the federal system and that they are not on the federal government's terrorist watch list. Hutchins said some names might have been shared with the National Security Agency.

Although the independent report on the surveillance released last week said that it was part of a broad effort by the state police to gather information on protest groups across the state, Sheridan said the department is not aware of any surveillance as "intrusive" as the spying on death penalty and war opponents.

But the most stunning thing in the article is the following statement, from Hutchins: "I don't believe the First Amendment is any guarantee to those who wish to disrupt the government."

Well, I guess that depends on what your definition of "disrupt" is. But if (as I suspect) Hutchins defines it as "freely assemble and petition the government for redress, on a subject the government doesn't want to talk about," then yes, the First Amendment actually is a guarantee, and was specifically written because the Founding Fathers had the foresight to see that people like Hutchins would one day be placed in charge of state police forces in America.

Which brings me to the federal story. ABC News broke this story:

Despite pledges by President George W. Bush and American intelligence officials to the contrary, hundreds of US citizens overseas have been eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home, according to two former military intercept operators who worked at the giant National Security Agency (NSA) center in Fort Gordon, Georgia.

Well, gosh, what a surprise! It seems that the N.S.A. is vacuuming up every single call, no matter whether it happens to be terrorism-related or not. Two whistleblowers (who didn't even know each other had come forward) reported on the process:

"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA's Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.

Kinne described the contents of the calls as "personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism."

She said US military officers, American journalists and American aid workers were routinely intercepted and "collected on" as they called their offices or homes in the United States.

Another intercept operator, former Navy Arab linguist, David Murfee Faulk, 39, said he and his fellow intercept operators listened into hundreds of Americans picked up using phones in Baghdad's Green Zone from late 2003 to November 2007.

"Calling home to the United States, talking to their spouses, sometimes their girlfriends, sometimes one phone call following another," said Faulk.

It gets worse, though. Here's what they did with the calls:

Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.

"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News.

Faulk said he joined in to listen, and talk about it during breaks in Back Hall's "smoke pit," but ended up feeling badly about his actions.

"I feel that it was something that the people should not have done. Including me," he said.

The whole disgusting story is worth reading, but the irony is in the first few paragraphs:

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), called the allegations "extremely disturbing" and said the committee has begun its own examination.

"We have requested all relevant information from the Bush Administration," Rockefeller said Thursday. "The Committee will take whatever action is necessary."

Rockefeller, or as I like to call him "Rocky IV," seems shocked -- Shocked! -- to find gambling going in this establishment (so to speak). The next line from Casablanca is also relevant: "Your winnings, sir." Because Rocky IV is one of the biggest recipients of telecommunications money in Congress, which he cheerfully pockets while personally writing the laws that allowed such abuse in the first place. Rocky IV was the point man on all of the warrantless wiretapping and eavesdropping and immunity covered in the recent FISA revisions. But now we're supposed to believe that he's extremely disturbed by information showing abuse. And his committee will "take whatever action is necessary."

And if you believe that, I've got a bridge to nowhere to sell you.


-- Chris Weigant


2 Comments on “Surveillance Powers Abused”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Isn't it interesting how "bridge to nowhere" seems to have entered the lexicon? Kidding aside, I've been in Faulk and Kinne's place: 98G Radio/Voice Intercept Combat Electronic Warfare Equipment Operator. The worst thing about the SIGINT (SIGnals INTelligence) job is how very much haystack you must examine to find interesting needles. This kind of 'big net' approach to intelligence creates information overload, stressing the collectors and analysts without producing anything of value. But it sure does expand your ability to screw up badly.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:


    Tom Toles has a hilarious cartoon today on this subject.



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