Obama Spying Program Exceeds Bush’s Program

In an article that should surprise no one who has been paying attention, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Obama administration rewrote the rules on government surveillance to make them even worse than they were under the Bush administration.

Top U.S. intelligence officials gathered in the White House Situation Room in March to debate a controversial proposal. Counterterrorism officials wanted to create a government dragnet, sweeping up millions of records about U.S. citizens—even people suspected of no crime…

Through Freedom of Information Act requests and interviews with officials at numerous agencies, The Wall Street Journal has reconstructed the clash over the counterterrorism program within the administration of President Barack Obama. The debate was a confrontation between some who viewed it as a matter of efficiency—how long to keep data, for instance, or where it should be stored—and others who saw it as granting authority for unprecedented government surveillance of U.S. citizens.

The rules now allow the little-known National Counterterrorism Center to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them. That is a departure from past practice, which barred the agency from storing information about ordinary Americans unless a person was a terror suspect or related to an investigation.

Now, NCTC can copy entire government databases—flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited.

The changes also allow databases of U.S. civilian information to be given to foreign governments for analysis of their own. In effect, U.S. and foreign governments would be using the information to look for clues that people might commit future crimes.

All without a warrant, of course. But don’t worry. They promise never to use their power for anything bad:

Counterterrorism officials say they will be circumspect with the data. “The guidelines provide rigorous oversight to protect the information that we have, for authorized and narrow purposes,” said Alexander Joel, Civil Liberties Protection Officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the parent agency for the National Counterterrorism Center.

The ACLU is quite rightly unhappy about it:

The program is striking in so many ways. Innocent people can be investigated and their data kept for years. It can be shared with foreign governments. All of this in service of not just terrorism investigations but also investigations of future crimes. In effect, the U.S. government is using information it gathers for its ordinary business to turn its own citizens into the subjects of terrorism investigations.

Meanwhile, all of this is supposed to be against the law. The Privacy Act of 1974 says that information collected by the federal government for one purpose is not supposed to be used for another. However, agencies are attempting to circumvent these rules by publishing boilerplate notices in the Federal Register. Sadly, that practice has become far too common…

Worse, all of this happened in secret, approved by National Security Advisor John Brennan and signed off on by Attorney General Eric Holder. No public debate or comment and suddenly, every citizen can be put under the terrorism microscope.

Ironically, all of these changes to the rules came in response to an attempted attack that had nothing to do with information collection or a U.S. citizen. The government cites the attempted 2009 Christmas bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as the impetus for the changes. However, as the Journal story makes clear, Abdulmutallab wasn’t a U.S. citizen, and collecting information on him wasn’t a problem. Instead, his own father had identified him to the U.S. government as a potential terrorist. In short, an attack by a known foreign terror suspect was used to justify changes to rules about collecting information on U.S. citizens.

Welcome to the National Security State.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • julial

    Sorry, can’t comment…. don’t know who’ll be reading this.

  • mayanskeptic


    we really enjoy your atheist forum

    do a search on youtube for skepticality

    a little souvenir

    it is the video about the PIGS

  • omnicrom

    Hey Ed, if you’re following the comment thread you’ve got a Mabus sighting. He posted the same thing over on PZ’s blog.

  • neonsequitur

    The ACLU calls it a terrorism “microscope” but it looks like a panopticon to me.

  • David C Brayton

    Yeah, just like they promised to use FISA warrants correctly, liked they promised that exceptions to FISA’s warrant requirements would be used sparingly.

    Any power that is granted to the government will be used to its full extent and then some because that’s what power-hungry bureaucrats do…

    they accrete power unto themselves.

  • It’s why I do everything naked. I mean, if they’re going through the trouble to watch I’d might as well give ’em a show.

  • sugarfrosted

    I kind of hate that this is my first comment. I hate to be the devil’s advocate, but do you have a better source than a Murdock owned paper? I’m really questioning whether to believe a paper, that is owned by a guy, who hires people on a news network he also own to claim Obama is Kenyan.

  • davidct

    While it is always good to look twice at the source, Murdock owned does not always mean the information is entirely incorrect. One of my disappointments with the President is that he has retained and added to all the powers of the Patriot act. The criticism he took related to the Libyan attack, gives him no incentive to worry about privacy. Wired Magazine did a review of the NSA’s new data handling facility in Utah. This comment will be part of my permanent record.

  • netamigo

    Here is an interesting item discussing the European response and our response.


  • jnorris

    I remember reading years ago the the Secret Service kept files on potential presidential assassins. None of the real assassins were ever on the list. I believe Groucho Marx was. So yes, I have great competence in this new tracking system to prevent any real crime (end of sarcasm).

  • @#2 – Looks like mabus survived the notpocalypse.

  • Choice data:

    TIDE contains more than 500,000 identities suspected of terror links.

    Yeah, because there are 500,000+ suspects. A little short of the full 7+billion but headed that direction.

    Here’s the problem: with 500,000 “links” you can be sure that a) quality control is nonexistent and b) the linkages are being generated algorithmically. Either they’re using semantic forests or activation maps or some other model for generating inferred connections. The goofy thing about systems like that is that they tend to either not add enough targets, or they eventually add everyone, unless there are specific exclusionary rules. Like “do not include my mother-in-law” you get garbage in/garbage out pretty quickly.

    The real fun is if anyone is able to figure out the weightings and triggers in the matching rules – because then you can play real fun with the backend. Suppose we knew that calling a phone number that was on a certain list automatically promotes the caller to a certain other list… Then a bit of smartphone malware could pretty quickly add another million people to the list. Any place where you can trigger a human review (of the data ideally, but the weightings and triggers as well) you can launch a resource exhaustion attack against the watcher.

  • Addendum: it will soon be a fun attack to purchase a target a plane ticket using stolen credentials, to land them on a no-fly list. There will be whole new categories of attacks created based on manipulating inputs into the national security apparatus in order to manipulate its outputs.

    I have tentatively named this type of attack “buttle-ing”

  • Pierce R. Butler

    They’re probably already jaded by even this.

  • Rip Steakface

    @Marcus Ranum

    If you’re an extreme optimist, you may look at it as inventive hackers circumventing and disabling the police state through its own inefficiency. Sounds nice, but these sorts of programs tend to be self-perpetuating. Can’t be “soft on terror!”

  • Nibi

    Marcus Ranum

    I have tentatively named this type of attack “buttle-ing”

    I have it on good authority that there is a notorious individual who goes by the name Marcus Tanum on the list. Not that this should concern you.