Obama Administration Expanded Warrantless Surveillance to Target ‘Malicious Cyber Activity’

Defense Department Photo

Documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show warrantless surveillance was expanded by President Barack Obama’s administration to target “malicious cyber activity.”

After Congress legalized the warrantless wiretapping with the FISA Amendments Act in 2008, non-US citizens could be targeted abroad. The administration developed a new policy for cybersecurity and took steps that would make the difference between a spy and criminal nearly non-existent.

According to a report from the New York Times and ProPublica, the White House National Security Council decided in May 2009 that “reliance on legal authorities that make theoretical distinctions between armed attacks, terrorism and criminal activity may prove impractical.”

The NSA proposed that the government use the warrantless surveillance program for cybersecurity about the same time.

In May and July 2012, the Justice Department signed off on searches of “cybersignatures” and Internet addresses. The approval was tied to previously granted authority to spy on foreign governments obtained from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. However, the NSA soon grew frustrated with the limits this imposed on them.

“That limit meant the NSA had to have some evidence for believing that the hackers were working for a specific foreign power,” the report indicates. “That rule, the NSA soon complained, left a ‘huge collection gap against cyberthreats to the nation’ because it is often hard to know exactly who is behind an intrusion, according to an agency newsletter. Different computer intruders can use the same piece of malware, take steps to hide their location or pretend to be someone else.”

Before the year was over, the NSA pressed the secret surveillance court for permission to use the warrantless wiretapping program for “cybersecurity purposes.”

As this happened, the FBI’s authority to target Internet data and use it for its criminal and “national security” investigations expanded.

…[T]he FBI in 2011 had obtained a new kind of wiretap order from the secret surveillance court for cybersecurity investigations, permitting it to target Internet data flowing to or from specific Internet addresses linked to certain governments.

To carry out the orders, the FBI negotiated in 2012 to use the NSA’s system for monitoring Internet traffic crossing “chokepoints operated by U.S. providers through which international communications enter and leave the United States,” according to a 2012 NSA document. The NSA would send the intercepted traffic to the bureau’s “cyberdata repository” in Quantico, Virginia…

The newly claimed authority is but another example of an expansion of executive power the Obama administration arrogated to itself without any public debate whatsoever. (more…)

A Misleading Moment of Celebration for a New Surveillance Program

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This is cross-posted with permission from ExposeFacts.org.

The morning after final passage of the USA Freedom Act, while some foes of mass surveillance were celebrating, Thomas Drake sounded decidedly glum. The new law, he told me, is “a new spy program.” It restarts some of the worst aspects of the Patriot Act and further codifies systematic violations of Fourth Amendment rights.

Later on Wednesday, here in Oslo as part of a “Stand Up For Truth” tour, Drake warned at a public forum that “national security” has become “the new state religion.” Meanwhile, his Twitter messages were calling the USA Freedom Act an “itty-bitty step” — and a “stop/restart kabuki shell game” that “starts w/ restarting bulk collection of phone records.”

That downbeat appraisal of the USA Freedom Act should give pause to its celebrants. Drake is a former senior executive of the National Security Agency — and a whistleblower who endured prosecution and faced decades in prison for daring to speak truthfully about NSA activities. He ran afoul of vindictive authorities because he refused to go along with the NSA’s massive surveillance program after 9/11.

Drake understands how the NSA operates from the highest strategic levels. He notes a telling fact that has gone virtually unacknowledged by anti-surveillance boosters of the USA Freedom Act: “NSA approved.” So, of course, did the top purveyor of mendacious claims about the U.S. government’s surveillance programs — President Obama — who eagerly signed the “USA Freedom” bill into law just hours after the Senate passed it.

(more…)

Congress Did Not Pass an Anti-Surveillance Law (And Other Thoughts About the USA Freedom Act)

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When President Barack Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, it did not end bulk data collection or mass surveillance programs. It did not address many of the policies, practices or programs of the NSA, which NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. It did not sharply limit surveillance nor was it an anti-surveillance law. The USA Freedom Act renewed Patriot Act provisions, which had sunset days ago. However, it is difficult to disagree with Snowden’s generally optimistic assessment.

During an Amnesty International UK event, as the Senate was about to pass the law, Snowden declared, “For the first time in forty years of US history, since the intelligence community was reformed in the ’70s, we found that facts have become more persuasive than fear.”

Snowden continued, “For the first time in recent history we found that despite the claims of government, the public made the final decision and that is a radical change that we should seize on, we should value and we should push further.”

He was specifically referring to how the Congress and courts had rejected this NSA surveillance program.

In that sense, June 2 was a day that the people won against the security state. US citizens took away the government’s control of nearly all of their domestic call records. And power was forced to act because their operation of a program and the operations of a secret surveillance court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, were no longer seen as legitimate.

The extent of the victory, however, probably ends there.

As another NSA whistleblower, Bill Binney, said during an event in Chicago, the USA Freedom Act was a “surface change.” The government still has Executive Order 12333, which it can use for “content collection of US domestic communications as well as metadata. It’s all done through the Upstream programs. It’s done without oversight at all. There’s no oversight by Congress or the courts.” [Upstream is the series of different cables and fiber optic taps that the NSA uses to collect data that passes through fiber networks. Phone calls, emails, cloud transfers, pictures, and video, according to Binney, can all be collected.]

Journalist Marcy Wheeler pointed out that bulk collection of Americans’ international phone calls will continue. “Backdoor searches” under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act will continue, as the NSA can collect emails, browsing and chat history of US citizens without a warrant.

A number of the senators who voted for the USA Freedom Act did so because the three Patriot Act provisions had expired. They wanted something passed quickly so the NSA could resume spying operations that were supposed to be put on hold. So, some senators saw the USA Freedom Act as both a law to protect security as well as privacy.

Senator Bernie Sanders voted against the USA Freedom Act and explained in a released statement that it would still give the NSA and “law enforcement too much access to vast databases of information on millions of innocent Americans.”

The independent senator voted against the Patriot Act and both of the law’s extensions in 2005 and 2011.

The only Democratic senator to vote against the law. (more…)

Spy Planes: FBI Flew Over 100 Secret Missions Over 30 Cities in Recent Months

The Associated Press reported new details on secret surveillance flights being conducted by the FBI, including how the agency registers aircrafts with fake companies to conceal their role.

A recent review conducted by the AP found that over a “recent 30-day period” the FBI flew over 100 flights over 30 cities in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Most of the missions were with Cessna 182T Skylane aircrafts. They were flown over Boston, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Seattle and parts of Southern California.

The planes carried video surveillance equipment as well as Stingray surveillance equipment or cell-site simulator gear, which creates a dragnet and enables the FBI to trick cellphones in a given area into providing identification information to agents.

Unlike the agency’s drone fleet, piloted aircraft is not subject to the Justice Department’s policy barring drones from being used to monitor “First Amendment activities,” which may partly explain why the secret flights have been spotted over cities where communities have protested killings by police.

Sam Richards, an independent journalist, first reported that the FBI was flying secret missions over cities with aircraft registered to fake companies.

“The aircraft have been registered to corporations that do not exist, and the purpose of the aerial operations is not known at this time. The flight patterns of the aircraft indicate they are most likely conducting surveillance, much like the controversial aircraft caught flying circles over the city of Baltimore which has seen many protests recently,” Richards reported on May 25.

Richards searched “aircraft registration” in Bristow, Virginia, and found many “three-letter acronym companies.” A few of the aircrafts listed were “registered explicitly to the Department of Justice.” He decided the companies had to be fake when his searches for information on the Internet were “fruitless.” He also noticed that the flight patterns—repeated circles around a city—indicated these planes were likely involved in surveillance missions. (more…)

White House Insists Snowden is Still Guilty of ‘Very Serious Crimes’

Regardless of political developments that may vindicate the actions of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the White House still maintains that he committed “very serious crimes” and should continue to face prosecution in the United States.

White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest was asked during a press briefing on June 1 about whether it was time to “reassess the persecution” of Snowden. All three branches of government have rejected the use of the Patriot Act to justify bulk data collection by the NSA, a program which Snowden revealed to the public.

“It’s not,” Earnest replied. “The fact is Mr. Snowden committed very serious crimes, and the US government and Department of Justice believe that he should face them.”

“That’s why we believe Mr. Snowden should return to the United States, and he will have the opportunity if he were to return to the United States to make that case in a court of law. But, obviously, our view on this is that he committed and is accused of very serious crimes.”

As a follow-up, Earnest was pressed on the fact that Snowden would not be able to make a public interest or whistleblower defense in court during a trial. He is charged with violating the Espionage Act. The Justice Department prosecutes it as a strict liability crime, which means motive does not matter. If a person causes “national defense” information to be made public without proper authorization, that is enough to convict them of committing a violation of the law.

“Would you be willing to at least talk to him about the circumstances in which you’ve said you’d give him a fair trial?”

Earnest suggested the Justice Department would have to handle something like that. He would not get into how that would play out. But, he added, “There exists mechanisms for whistleblowers to raise concerns about sensitive national security programs.”

“Releasing details of sensitive national security programs on the internet for everyone, including our adversaries, to see is inconsistent with those protocols that are established for protecting whistleblowers.”

Jesselyn Radack, an attorney who has represented Snowden, reacted, “Snowden did not release any documents on the internet. He provided documents to journalists, who used their editorial discretion to decide what was worthy and in the public interest to know.”

It is a “tried and true line,” which President Barack Obama’s administration has “trotted out in Espionage Act cases.” The argument is because terrorists read newspapers there will be grave harm, but it is generally not supported by facts.

When Snowden was at the NSA, he was working as a private contractor. Snowden did not have “proper channels” he could go through because the presidential policy directive put in place for “intelligence officers” excluded contractors. So, it is hard to figure out what “protocols” Earnest was referencing when he made his remarks.

Radack added, “As one of the attorneys representing Snowden, given the recent developments in the courts and Congress, it is clearly time to drop these charges against Mr. Snowden.”

It was not Obama that created this political moment where potential surveillance reforms were debated and senators spoke out against bulk data collection. It was Snowden—and a number of senators recognize this reality.

However, Earnest claimed that Obama should be the one credited with any surveillance reform that passes in Congress.

“To the extent that we’re talking about the president’s legacy, I would suspect that would be a logical conclusion from some historians that the president ended some of these programs that did raise concerns [among] those who prioritize privacy and civil liberties of the American people,” Earnest stated.

“This is consistent with the reforms that the president advocated a year and a half ago. And these are reforms that required the president and his team to expend significant amounts of political capital to achieve over the objection of Republicans.”

Yet, few senators have credited Obama for pushing reform. Politicians in Washington recognize that public opinion, which has been influenced by disclosures from Snowden, is why they are considering changes to policies.

A Pew Research Center poll recently found that few Americans support government holding on to their data in bulk. Only 6% were “very confident” that government can keep records “safe and secure.”

“[Sixty-five percent] of American adults believe there are not adequate limits on the telephone and internet data that the government collects.”

The Marvelous Moment When a Few Patriot Act Spying Powers Sunset

Sen. Mitch McConnell

Three powers in the Patriot Act expired on Sunday night. Though temporary, the development marked the first time since the September 11th attacks that the expansive and covert global security state suffered a setback, where power was lost.

It was all because of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and a shift in public consciousness brought about by what Snowden revealed about massive government surveillance.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was livid as he found himself with no choice but to call for a vote on a motion to debate the USA Freedom Act, a watered-down piece of reform legislation supported by President Barack Obama’s administration and the intelligence community which he had opposed.

On May 20, Senator Rand Paul held the Senate floor for ten and a half hours as he opposed extending provisions of the Patriot Act. His action single-handedly put the Senate in a position, where it would be difficult to prevent expiration.

There was one option: pass the USA Freedom Act, which maintained the “roving wiretap” and “lone wolf” provisions but made changes to the bulk phone records collection program.

On May 22, the USA Freedom Act failed to pass in the Senate. Senators scrambled to save the government’s spying powers. Senator Richard Burr and Senator Dianne Feinstein each proposed their own bills, which would have been very favorable to the country’s intelligence agencies had either piece of legislation gained support.

The Senate’s only alternative to simply letting powers expire was to support a bill that had failed earlier in May. McConnell had to call for a cloture vote on a bill that does not give government the same exact power agencies have had under the Patriot Act. In other words, McConnell had to concede that security hawks would suffer a rare defeat this round. (more…)

New York Times Pushes False Notion Both Sides of Patriot Act Debate Are Wrong

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An analysis published in the New York Times falsely equates arguments for and against extending provisions of the PATRIOT Act, making it seem as if those against extension are just as wrong as those pushing to preserve government spying powers.

“There is little evidence in the history of the expiring Patriot Act powers to bolster the arguments that either supporters or opponents are making,” according to a description of the analysis written by Charlie Savage.

With the headline, “Reality Checks in Debate Over Surveillance Laws,” it appropriately calls out Republican senators like Tom Cotton, who have claimed a lapse in “this critical tool would lead to attacks.” Savage notes that studies and testimony have both shown that in the program’s existence zero terrorist attacks have been thwarted.

However, in the next paragraphs, Savage casts opponents of extending the provisions as individuals who are comparably wrong:

At the same time, proponents of ending the program say it poses risks to Americans’ private lives, by permitting the government to know who has been calling psychiatrists or political groups, for example. But despite the discovery of technical violations of the rules several years ago, no evidence has emerged that the program has been misused for political or personal gain. As a result, the privacy-minded critics have had to couch their warnings in hypothetical terms.

“Even if we stipulate for purposes of this discussion that no one within the N.S.A. is currently abusing this program for nefarious political purposes,” Senator Rand Paul, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, said in a filibuster-style floor speech last week, “can we say we are certain that will always be the case? Who is to say what might happen one year from now, two years from now, five years, 10 years or 15 years from now?”

While Savage may consider this to be equal to fear mongering about what will happen if spying powers are curtailed, “privacy-minded” opponents of the PATRIOT Act are not relying on the same hyperbole.

The only example Savage cites is very restrained and calculated. It is based on a concern that history could repeat itself because the country once experienced what it was like to have a domestic security state turned against citizens decades ago when J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director. And, in the example, Paul is making no claims about abuse for personal or political gain that cannot be backed up.

On the contrary, none of the supporters of the Patriot Act spying powers are as measured in their arguments. Not even officials from President Barack Obama’s administration are as level-headed in their rhetoric.

Administration officials have had a reporter from the Times print anonymous statements from them, one which suggests critics are playing “national security Russian roulette.” The administration maintains opponents are being “grossly irresponsible” because they want to have a debate and reform spying powers in a manner that much of the country actually supports.

Furthermore, it is inaccurate—and, at best, misleading—to write in any analysis that there is “no evidence” that “the program has been misused for political or personal gain.” (more…)

Senate Effort to Renew NSA Spying Powers Contains Provision to Stop Next Edward Snowden

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Senator Dianne Feinstein has proposed legislation to protect the National Security Agency from losing dragnet surveillance powers when Patriot Act provisions expire. But her bill would not only save spying powers but also codify into law a provision that would expressly enable the government to criminalize any national security whistleblower who may choose to follow the footsteps of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

As first reported by journalist Marcy Wheeler, the provision in Feinstein’s bill [PDF] is modeled after the Espionage Act, which President Barack Obama’s administration has aggressively relied upon to prosecute a record number of whistleblowers. (Snowden was indicted under the Espionage Act.)

The provision would prohibit “unauthorized disclosures” by an “officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States” or any “recipient of an order” issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), who “knowingly comes into possession of classified information or documents or materials containing classified information” of the US.

A person could be criminalized if they disclosed any information connected to an application to the FISA Court, an order approved by the court or information acquired under a directive issued by the court.

Knowingly communicating, transmitting and making available information to an “unauthorized person,” such as a journalist, would be criminal. Someone who “knowingly removes such documents or materials without authority and with the intent to retain such documents or materials at an unauthorized location,” as Snowden did before providing documents to journalists, would be violating the law as well.

Making information available to a reporter could potentially result in someone going to jail for ten years. Retaining documents at an unauthorized location could potentially result in a one-year prison sentence.

A similar provision was included in a bill introduced by Senator Richard Burr over the weekend. The bill was also drafted to protect dragnet surveillance powers.

Both Burr, a Republican who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, and Feinstein, a Democrat and former chair of the Senate intelligence committee, are powerful senators who have traditionally supported anti-leaks measures, which Senator Ron Wyden blocked in 2012.

Feinstein accused Snowden in June 2013 of “violating” his oath to defend the Constitution. She unequivocally stated, “He violated the law. It’s treason.” When Burr found about what Snowden revealed on mass surveillance, he was not concerned about the programs but rather about how a contractor like Snowden had access to so much material.

Jesselyn Radack, an attorney who has represented a number of whistleblowers such as Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, and currently represents Snowden, reacted, “Feinstein is the latest member of Congress to offer a non-compromise ‘compromise’ to replace the already-compromised USA Freedom Act. Her bill would essentially retain Richard Burr’s odious Section 215 mini-Espionage Act, imposing 10-year penalties on people like my NSA whistleblower clients Edward Snowden, William Binney and Thomas Drake, who told us what the intelligence community was really doing with the call records program.”

“The most disturbing aspect is the prospect of Congress codifying the Justice Department’s draconian use of the century-old Espionage Act into law when there’s a lot of validity that the Department has unconstitutionally applied the Espionage Act to whistleblowers.”

The provision contains no clear and present danger standard, which means it would not matter if a person knew the disclosure of information would result in no harm. The government would be under no obligation to present any evidence that a release of information caused grave damage or harmed anyone during prosecution. This would likely violate the First Amendment. (more…)

For 7 Years, FBI Defied Law for Seeking a Person’s Records Under Patriot Act

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A Justice Department inspector general’s report shows that for seven years the Federal Bureau of Investigation violated statutory law designed to restrict the agency’s surveillance power. During this period, the agency sought individuals’ records under the business records provision of the PATRIOT Act without adopting proper “minimization procedures” to protect privacy of US persons.

The FBI’s use of orders under Section 215 between 2007 and 2009 was examined by the inspector general. Whether the FBI complied with recommendations the inspector general made back in March 2008.

Section 215 makes it possible for the government to obtain “any tangible things,” such as books, records and other items from a business, organization or entity. They are supposed to be “relevant” to an “authorized investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a US person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” But the standard for relevance is very low.

The Section 215 provision is set to expire on June 1, and, as Senator Rand Paul comprehensively outlined while he held the Senate floor for over ten hours, there are many reasons to not reauthorize the provision. This report, which was completed eleven months ago but is dated May 2015, adds substantially to those reasons.

Under the PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, the law required that certain “minimization procedures” be adopted to ensure the handling of US persons’ data was done appropriately. It was not until March 7, 2013, that the Attorney General and the Justice Department officially incorporated these procedures into requests for records. (Marcy Wheeler points out the Justice Department did not actually fully comply with legally required procedures until after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed information.)

“The Attorney General’s and the [Justice] Department’s actions came 7 years after such procedures were required by the Reauthorization Act and 5 years after we concluded the interim procedures in 2006 were deficient,” the inspector general’s report [PDF] indicates.

In an understatement, the inspector general declares that the Justice Department “should have met its statutory obligation considerably earlier than March 2013.”

The report suggests that FBI personnel have made “strategic use of the legislative and technological changes by broadening the scope of materials sought in applications. Section 215 authority is not limited to requesting information related to the known subjects of specific underlying investigations. The authority is also used in investigations of groups comprised of unknown members and to obtain information in bulk concerning persons who are not the subjects of or associated with any FBI investigation.”

That seems hugely significant. FBI personnel are permitted to request records of persons who are not subjects of underlying investigations. The FBI uses the PATRIOT Act to request records on people when they do not even have an FBI investigation into those individuals.

FBI personnel with authorized access are apparently permitted to engage in some action involving records, which the Justice Department believes must keep secret. This action is used to determine whether records “reasonably appear to be foreign intelligence information, necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or evidence of a crime.”

National Security Division attorneys in the Justice Department and FBI case agents provided the inspector general with a “range of examples of material that would qualify under this criteria.” It is impossible for the public to know what this means because the Justice Department had it censored in the report.

Another term the FBI has conjured to expand its surveillance powers is “investigative value.” This is a term the inspector general discovered the FBI had introduced for allowing case agents “unconnected with the underlying investigation access to material received in response” to a Section 215 order. However, what “investigative value” means to the FBI and just how it stretches the boundaries of what the agency is authorized to do is anyone’s guess because, again, the agency’s definition is censored in the released report.

The “type of information that is categorized as metadata will likely continue to evolve and expand,” the report acknowledges. The FBI is obtaining “large collections of metadata,” which is data about the records but not the exact content from the records themselves. “Electronic communication transaction information” and two other types of data, which the FBI does not want the public to know about, are being sought through this provision of the PATRIOT Act. (more…)