Thursday, August 21, 2008

Broad New Domestic Spying Measures Are Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

Broad New Domestic Spying Measures Are Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

By Liliana Segura
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Arriving at a bar in Manhattan on Friday night, I presented my passport to the man at the door. (I lost my driver's license some time ago, so this has become my ID until I can get myself to the DMV.) The bouncer -- a large, humorless man in all black -- examined it, and then, on a piece of lined paper, slowly started writing down my name, date of birth, and nationality.

"Excuse me," I asked. "Is there a reason you are taking down my information?"

"NYPD," he answered, without looking up.

"Can I refuse to have this information recorded?" I asked, not really asking a question.

"Yes," he said, still not looking up. "But I can refuse to let you in."

I squabbled a bit with the bouncer as a line formed behind me. He told me that the bar had had some trouble with underage drinking. "So this isn't some sort of homeland security thing," I asked, feeling more than a little paranoid. He said it was, actually (though I got the sense he didn't know exactly what I was talking about), but assured me that the list of names would not be shared with the authorities. Then he added, "this is to keep you safe."

***

On Saturday morning, I had an article from my boss in my inbox. From the Washington Post:

U.S. May Ease Police Spy Rules

More Federal Intelligence Changes Planned

The Justice Department has proposed a new domestic spying measure that would make it easier for state and local police to collect intelligence about Americans, share the sensitive data with federal agencies and retain it for at least 10 years.

Quietly unveiled late last month, the proposal is part of a flurry of domestic intelligence changes issued and planned by the Bush administration in its waning months. They include a recent executive order that guides the reorganization of federal spy agencies and a pending Justice Department overhaul of FBI procedures for gathering intelligence and investigating terrorism cases within U.S. borders.

First, an aside: I am not implying that my experience at the bar has anything to do with this initiative. But the list of passport names taken down by the bouncer spoke pretty loudly to how willingly we will give up our privacy in the face of authority. The people in line behind me may have thought I was being paranoid or conspiratorial. But who could blame me?

Moving on, the aforementioned executive order was issued by President Bush on July 31, and is in the words of one official, "exceptionally complex," 26 or 28 pages long, single-spaced ("depending on how you print it"). It is a sweeping revision of an order issued by Ronald Reagan in 1981, which laid out the structure and responsibilities of U.S. intelligence offices.

In a phone call with reporters the day the order was issued, a senior White House official (who refused to be identified) said, "the President is anxious to institutionalize a number of important tools that he and his successors are going to need to fight and win the war on terrorism." He described it as being in the same vein as the recently passed FISA law ("an important milestone"). This is "another significant step in that direction."

If you didn't see much about this rather important executive order -- the senior official called it a "foundational document" -- that's no accident. Reporters were not even provided a copy before the weirdly anonymous briefing. ("This conference call would have been much more useful … if we'd had this in advance," said one reporter.) Despite (or perhaps because of) its significant implications for U.S. intelligence, many in Congress were not even aware of it until the day it was issued.

"We were only shown the document after it was complete and on its way to the president for his signature," Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), chairman of the House intelligence committee told the Washington Post. "After seven years of a go-it-alone presidency, perhaps I should expect nothing more from this White House. But this order will be binding on future administrations as well."

I have not read all 26 to 28 pages of the executive order. But among its revisions is a clause stating that the CIA must "provide specialized equipment, technical knowledge or assistance of expert personnel" to local law enforcement. As a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, one of several groups who it was recently revealed were being spied on by Maryland police in the past few years, and living in a city whose police infiltrated activist groups across the country in the run-up to the 2004 Republican National Convention, it is chilling to think how these resources could be used against groups that are exercising their right to dissent. To say nothing of the potential implications for Arabs or Muslims.

According to the Post, The DOJ proposal, which was also released on July 31, says that "law enforcement agencies would be allowed to target groups as well as individuals, and to launch a criminal intelligence investigation based on the suspicion that a target is engaged in terrorism or providing material support to terrorists."

"They also could share results with a constellation of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and others in many cases."

"Criminal intelligence data starts with sources as basic as public records and the Internet, but also includes law enforcement databases, confidential and undercover sources, and active surveillance."

Read the full article. This is more than a last power grab for the Bush administration. It is a massive codification of the executive overreach implemented under the so-called "war on terror."

Taken together, critics in Congress and elsewhere say, the moves are intended to lock in policies for Bush's successor and to enshrine controversial post-Sept. 11 approaches that some say have fed the greatest expansion of executive authority since the Watergate era.

The deputy executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police would disagree. The DOJ initiative simply "moves what the rules were … to the new world we live in," he told the Post -- "but it maintains civil liberties."

According to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, these are just "some of the tools necessary to keep us safe." Funny, that's what the guy told me at the bar, too.

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