Following pressure from lawsuits by both the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the federal government has released 14 documents concerning privacy violations committed by the NSA in their collection of private data from US citizens. Both lawsuits were based on what the ACLU and EFF believe is a misinterpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. According to the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, any data obtained under Section 215 of the Patriot Act:
“must be `relevant’ to an authorized preliminary or full investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a U.S. person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities. The provision also requires a statement of facts to be included in the application that shows there are reasonable grounds to believe the tangible things sought are relevant, and, if such facts show reasonable grounds to believe that certain specified connections to a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power are present, the tangible things sought are presumptively relevant.”
What the 14 documents that were declassified reveal is that the NSA has not been following this revised version of the Patriot Act, but rather gathering whatever information they want despite the fact that they have had several rendezvous with the FISA court (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) regarding the legality of their collections. The FISA court is the court that issues surveillance warrants for perceived foreign threats on US soil. This court was established after the passing of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in the 1970’s, following the events of Watergate.
The court cases filed by the ACLU and EFF concerned the actions of the NSA between the years 2006 to 2009. During this time, the NSA collected information on citizens that was not deemed legal under the warrant granted to them by the FISA court. In fact, in 2009 alone, the NSA flagged and gathered information on more than 17,000 citizens, and under 2,000 of those people were on the “flag” list given to the NSA by the FISA order, a list that was composed of people with reasonable articulable suspicion (RAS) of terroristic activity.
The documents released by the federal government show several court hearings and proceedings that occurred between the NSA and FISA courts concerning this blatant disregard for person privacy. The best reason the NSA could come up for as to why they illegally collected information on more than 17,000 people in one year: “there was no single person who had a complete technical understanding of the BR FISA architecture.” In short, we had an entire governmental agency which specifically deals with the national security of arguably the most powerful nation on the earth, and not one of them could understand the BR FISA, which is a simple document outlining what is and what is not acceptable when gathering information concerning foreign threats within US borders…..
So, what does all of this tell us? For one, it shows us that government officials may be even more clueless when it comes to legal standards than our friends at the ACLU and even the EFF. Secondly, it shows us that the American people can still use legal means to accomplish large and important goals (except for the fact that it took an extremely large illegal activity by Edward Snowden to even bring the subject to light, and despite the fact that the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, wants us to believe that this is another step toward government transparency ). Lastly, it shows us that the events of 9/11 have had much more lasting impact than any American could have imagined, and in ways that we would have never considered. While every American recognizes the events of that day as a tragic loss of American life, no American thought that we would now live in a country in which almost all of our civil liberties and freedoms have been compromised at the behest of “protection from terrorism”. So while this may be a small victory for the American people in regards of data privacy and government transparency, it still reveals how much we actually lost on 9/11, and how much the “terrorists” won.
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