Sunday, November 06, 2005

Something That Should Actually Concern You About the USA Patriot Act

While I think most of the controversy with the USA Patriot Act such as the FBI being able to get someone's library records is overblown, The Washington Post ran a story today about something in the USA Patriot Act that should legitimately concern people:
The Connecticut case affords a rare glimpse of an exponentially growing practice of domestic surveillance under the USA Patriot Act, which marked its fourth anniversary on Oct. 26. "National security letters," created in the 1970s for espionage and terrorism investigations, originated as narrow exceptions in consumer privacy law, enabling the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents. The Patriot Act, and Bush administration guidelines for its use, transformed those letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of U.S. residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.

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.

Now these national security letters and the wide use of them in it of itself is not that alarming to me. These letters can only get things like phone records, credit reports and cannot be used to do more intrusive things like wiretaps. However, here's my first concern about these expanded powers with the national security letters:
Two years ago, Ashcroft rescinded a 1995 guideline directing that information obtained through a national security letter about a U.S. citizen or resident "shall be destroyed by the FBI and not further disseminated" if it proves "not relevant to the purposes for which it was collected." Ashcroft's new order was that "the FBI shall retain" all records it collects and "may disseminate" them freely among federal agencies.

The same order directed the FBI to develop "data mining" technology to probe for hidden links among the people in its growing cache of electronic files. According to an FBI status report, the bureau's office of intelligence began operating in January 2004 a new Investigative Data Warehouse, based on the same Oracle technology used by the CIA. The CIA is generally forbidden to keep such files on Americans.

Data mining intensifies the impact of national security letters, because anyone's personal files can be scrutinized again and again without a fresh need to establish relevance.
So basically if you had one phone call with some guy who was planning a terrorist attack, you could be continually scrutinized by the FBI over and over again and they could pass that personal info around to any federal agency it desires. So not only could the FBI know I have a weakness for Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, but the DoD could know as well. That's alarming, but not as alarming as this:

In the executive branch, no FBI or Justice Department official audits the use of national security letters to assess whether they are appropriately targeted, lawfully applied or contribute important facts to an investigation.

Justice Department officials noted frequently this year that Inspector General Glenn A. Fine reports twice a year on abuses of the Patriot Act and has yet to substantiate any complaint. (One investigation is pending.) Fine advertises his role, but there is a puzzle built into the mandate. Under what scenario could a person protest a search of his personal records if he is never notified?

"We do rely upon complaints coming in," Fine said in House testimony in May. He added: "To the extent that people do not know of anything happening to them, there is an issue about whether they can complain. So, I think that's a legitimate question."

Asked more recently whether Fine's office has conducted an independent examination of national security letters, Deputy Inspector General Paul K. Martin said in an interview: "We have not initiated a broad-based review that examines the use of specific provisions of the Patriot Act."

So not only can the FBI keep your credit report long after it has any relevance to a current terrorist investigation and pass it around to other federal agencies, there's no oversight. Brilliant. Congress would be wise to address this concern when they decide whether to extend some of provisions in the USA Patriot Act later this year.