Barton Gellman of the WaPo has a superb piece regarding the Patriot Act and the expanded powers of the FBI under its auspices. It's a must read.
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.If you have ever wondered why it is that privacy rights groups are skeptical about the Patriot Act, re-read the above paragraphs. And pause for a moment, and think about how much information about you may already be in a database somewhere.
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 burgeoning use of national security letters coincides with an unannounced decision to deposit all the information they yield into government data banks -- and to share those private records widely, in the federal government and beyond. In late 2003, the Bush administration reversed a long-standing policy requiring agents to destroy their files on innocent American citizens, companies and residents when investigations closed. Late last month, President Bush signed Executive Order 13388, expanding access to those files for "state, local and tribal" governments and for "appropriate private sector entities," which are not defined. (emphasis mine)
A national security letter cannot be used to authorize eavesdropping or to read the contents of e-mail. But it does permit investigators to trace revealing paths through the private affairs of a modern digital citizen. The records it yields describe where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work.Wonder if they have a special folder for Firedoglake-a-holics?
Truly, this is a must read article. Investigative capabilities in the hands of ethical law enforcement personnel are an important tool in catching criminals, terrorists, and other bad guys. In the hands of less than ethical personnel or politcal machinery, it can be a weapon against enemies and critics and worse.
Whatever you think of the Patriot Act, something this far-reaching needs much, much more public discussion. This Gellman article is an excellent step toward doing just that.