In the political atmosphere created by a seemingly endless, only half-declared war, in which both foreign infiltration and domestic subversion are considered serious threats by the powers that be, the spooks from the FBI have been granted expansive powers for clandestine domestic surveillance — that is to say, spying on you, and I, and our neighbors, if our political loyalties are suspect. They are accountable only to minimal oversight, by closed, secret courts whose proceedings are only known to a select few of the bureaucrats and overlords of the State–but not to you, or I, or our neighbors. And in this kind environment, the Washington Post is shocked! shocked! to discover that the FBI may have abused its undisclosed and unchecked powers:
The FBI has conducted clandestine surveillance on some U.S. residents for as long as 18 months at a time without proper paperwork or oversight, according to previously classified documents to be released today.
Records turned over as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit also indicate that the FBI has investigated hundreds of potential violations related to its use of secret surveillance operations, which have been stepped up dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but are largely hidden from public view.
In other cases, agents obtained e-mails after a warrant expired, seized bank records without proper authority and conducted an improperunconsented physical search,according to the documents.
Although heavily censored, the documents provide a rare glimpse into the world of domestic spying, which is governed by a secret court and overseen by a presidential board that does not publicize its deliberations. The records are also emerging as the House and Senate battle over whether to put new restrictions on the controversial USA Patriot Act, which made it easier for the government to conduct secret searches and surveillance but has come under attack from civil liberties groups.
The records were provided to The Washington Post by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group that has sued the Justice Department for records relating to the Patriot Act.
David Sobel, EPIC’s general counsel, said the new documents raise questions about the extent of possible misconduct in counterintelligence investigations and underscore the need for greater congressional oversight of clandestine surveillance within the United States.
We’re seeing what might be the tip of the iceberg at the FBI and across the intelligence community,Sobel said.It indicates that the existing mechanisms do not appear adequate to prevent abuses or to ensure the public that abuses that are identified are treated seriously and remedied.
Catherine Lotrionte, the presidential board’s counsel, said most of its work is classified and covered by executive privilege. The board’s investigations range fromtechnical violations to more substantive violations of statutes or executive orders,Lotrionte said.
Most such cases involve powers granted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs the use of secret warrants, wiretaps and other methods as part of investigations of agents of foreign powers or terrorist groups. The threshold for such surveillance is lower than for traditional criminal warrants. More than 1,700 new cases were opened by the court last year, according to an administration report to Congress.
Sometimes things just happen out of the blue, and there just aren’t any warning signs. Who could have predicted that unchecked and unaccountable spying power, responsible only to secret courts, created by bulldozing established legal limits, would lead to abuses of power? It’s not like those onerous limits on the FBI were created for any particular reason. It’s not like anything like that ever happened before.
The fact is that this is only the smallest sign of a incredibly serious problem — systematic surveillance and unaccountable secret police are always toxic, and can be lethal, to anything resembling freedom. This is something that deserves a lot more than heaping facile sarcasm on it. But what else is there to say? It’s outrageous, but it’s not at all surprising. Those who rammed through measures like the USA PATRIOT act not expecting this to come are the worst sort of fools. Those who rammed through those measures not caring whether it came or not are the worst sort of criminals. And my lingering suspicion is that most of the folks in DC are both thoughtless enough, and ruthless enough, to be best described as both.