Big Brother Obama

The federal government's electronic eavesdropping continues under the new presidential administration


The Federal Bureau of Investigation illegally collected thousands of telephone records between 2002 and 2006, a Jan. 20 Justice Department report revealed. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) publicly scolded FBI Director Robert Mueller for the transgression, but the practice of secretly spying on Americans' international communications has become standard practice, even under the new presidential administration.

In late 2005, The New York Times exposed how the George W. Bush administration authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on Americans' e-mails and phone calls without then-required court orders. The scoop prompted retired AT&T technician Mark Klein to reveal the existence of a NSA-controlled secret room at a San Francisco AT&T facility, providing undisputed proof of this public-private spy operation and the extensive amount of personal data that is collected.

Not only was no one held accountable, but the Democrat-controlled Congress legalized the operation after the fact by passing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act (FISA Amendments Act) in 2008. Klein responded last year with the self-published book Wiring Up the Big Brother Machine ... And Fighting It to narrate his version of the civil liberties and privacy battle.

The creeping intrusion on Americans' privacy continues unabated under the Obama administration, according to government watchdog groups and media pundits. "Things have changed slightly — for the worse," said Rebecca Jeschke from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Barack Obama, while still a Senator, hinted what his later inclination might be when he voted for the FISA Amendments Act, arguing that it was needed to foil terrorist plots (after having previously stated his intention to oppose the bill). Now that the legislation is law, his administration is using the same rationale as its predecessor to fend off attempts to repeal it, namely that it is crucial to national security.

Yet the EFF and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) deem the practice and the legislation that authorized it to be unconstitutional. They're challenging it in courts but having a difficult time in light of executive branch opposition and national security claims.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was originally crafted to constrain and oversee the government's spying activities on Americans after the Nixon administration abused its power to eavesdrop on Vietnam War protesters and political adversaries.

FISA required officials to obtain from a judge individual warrants with specific named individuals or specific phone numbers before it wiretapped phone calls or read e-mails in the U.S. Outside the borders, spying remained unrestricted. The FISA Amendments Act subtly blurs those lines and leaves loopholes whereby the government can intercept U.S. residents' communications without having to notify the FISA court.

Under the new protocols, the FISA court can authorize NSA to conduct surveillance on U.S. soil as long as the target isn't American and is "reasonably believed" to be located abroad, no matter who the interlocutor may be, foreigner or American. When information is incidentally collected on American citizens, "minimization procedures" are designed to prevent the unnecessary retention or dissemination of such information.

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