Welcome to Your Police State

The Pentagon has found another use for National Security Letters, which at this point should rightly be regarded as the intelligence-gathering equivalent of the presidential signing statement—a stroke of the pen to magically turn dubiously ethical and formerly prohibited actions into perfectly legal maneuvers, with no legislation, no oversight, and no knowledge of the American people required.

The Pentagon has been using a little-known power to obtain banking and credit records of hundreds of Americans and others suspected of terrorism or espionage inside the United States, part of an aggressive expansion by the military into domestic intelligence gathering.

…Pentagon officials said they used [national security letters to gain access to financial records] to follow up on a variety of intelligence tips or leads. While they would not provide details about specific cases, military intelligence officials with knowledge of them said the military had issued the letters to collect financial records regarding a government contractor with unexplained wealth, for example, and a chaplain at Guantánamo Bay erroneously suspected of aiding prisoners at the facility.

…[E]ven when the initial suspicions are unproven, the documents have intelligence value, military officials say. In the next year, they plan to incorporate the records into a database at the Counterintelligence Field Activity office at the Pentagon to track possible threats against the military, Pentagon officials said. Like others interviewed, they would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

Military intelligence officers have sent letters in up to 500 investigations over the last five years, two officials estimated. The number of letters is likely to be well into the thousands, the officials said, because a single case often generates letters to multiple financial institutions.
Call me crazy, but this seems to be part of a pattern, where words and phrases like "national security letters," "database," and "secret" keep popping up, and it's all questionably legal or outright illegal but "an accident."

December 18, 2005: "Since October, news accounts have disclosed a burgeoning Pentagon campaign for 'detecting, identifying and engaging' internal enemies that included a database with information on peace protesters. A debate has roiled over the FBI's use of national security letters to obtain secret access to the personal records of tens of thousands of Americans. And now come revelations of the National Security Agency's interception of telephone calls and e-mails from the United States—without notice to the federal court that has held jurisdiction over domestic spying since 1978."

December 24, 2005: "The NSA traced and analyzed internet and telephone communications both coming in and going out of the US by 'tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system’s main arteries,' making the volume of information surveilled without warrants much larger than the White House has acknowledged. … 'A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the leading companies in the industry have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists'."

December 27, 2005: " President Bush and other top officials in his administration used the National Security Agency to secretly wiretap the home and office telephones and monitored private email accounts of members of the United Nations Security Council in early 2003 to determine how foreign delegates would vote on a U.N. resolution that paved the way for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, NSA documents show. Two former NSA officials familiar with the agency's campaign to spy on U.N. members say then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice authorized the plan at the request of President Bush, who wanted to know how delegates were going to vote. Rice did not immediately return a call for comment. The former officials said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also participated in discussions about the plan, which involved 'stepping up' efforts to eavesdrop on diplomats."

December 29, 2005: "The National Security Agency's Internet site has been placing files on visitors' computers that can track their Web surfing activity despite strict federal rules banning most files of that type. The files, known as cookies, disappeared after a privacy activist complained and The Associated Press made inquiries this week. Agency officials acknowledged yesterday that they had made a mistake."

January 22, 2006: "A Pentagon memo obtained by NEWSWEEK shows that the deputy Defense secretary now acknowledges that some TALON reports may have contained information on U.S. citizens and groups that never should have been retained. The number of reports with names of U.S. persons could be in the thousands, says a senior Pentagon official who asked not be named because of the sensitivity of the subject… There was information that was 'improperly stored,' says a Pentagon spokesman who was authorized to talk about the program (but not to give his name). 'It was an oversight'."

April 24, 2006: "Six NY teens have named Rummy, David Chu, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, and Matt Boehmer, Director of Advertising and Market Research Studies, in the suit, alleging they broke the law 'by keeping an extensive database on potential recruits,' including records not expunged after three years as required by law and information such as social security numbers, which is also not legal. … 'The plaintiffs—all 16- and 17-year-old students from the New York area—were approached by military recruiters even after demanding that their information be stricken from the database, Lieberman said. They want the court to declare the database illegal, force the military to stop keeping improper records and pay for their lawyers'."

May 15, 2006: "A senior federal law enforcement official tells us the government is tracking the phone numbers we call in an effort to root out confidential sources. … Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation."

May 16, 2006: "'It used to be very hard and complicated to [seek reporters' phone records in leak investigations], but it no longer is in the Bush administration,' said a senior federal official… Officials say the FBI makes extensive use of a new provision of the Patriot Act which allows agents to seek information with what are called National Security Letters (NSL). The NSLs are a version of an administrative subpoena and are not signed by a judge. Under the law, a phone company receiving a NSL for phone records must provide them and may not divulge to the customer that the records have been given to the government."

Et cetera … et cetera … et cetera …

Last November, the WaPo took a look at the FBI's increasing use of NSLs:

The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters -- one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people -- are extending the bureau's reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.

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.

..."The beef with the NSLs is that they don't have even a pretense of judicial or impartial scrutiny," said former representative Robert L. Barr Jr. (Ga.), who finds himself allied with the American Civil Liberties Union after a career as prosecutor, CIA analyst and conservative GOP stalwart. "There's no checks and balances whatever on them. It is simply some bureaucrat's decision that they want information, and they can basically just go and get it."
In other words, not only is there no oversight at all; there's also no legal recourse against them. They were specifically designed to be a tool of a police state, so we should not be remotely surprised that they are now being used by the military to do domestic law enforcement—but we should certainly be outraged and alarmed.

Also reported today: "Deep into an updated Army manual, the deletion of 10 words has left some national security experts wondering whether government lawyers are again asserting the executive branch’s right to wiretap Americans without a court warrant. The original guidelines, from 1984, said the Army could seek to wiretap people inside the United States on an emergency basis by going to the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, or by obtaining certification from the attorney general 'issued under the authority of section 102(a) of the Act.' That last phrase is missing from the latest manual, which says simply that the Army can seek emergency wiretapping authority pursuant to an order issued by the FISA court 'or upon attorney general authorization.' It makes no mention of the attorney general doing so under FISA."

There is no other way to construe this significant deletion in light of the administration's history aside from the obvious—the groundwork is being laid for enabling the Army to gather intelligence on American citizens, but the administration wants us to trust them that the possibility won't be abused.

Doubleplusgood, bitchez.

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