The new FISA “compromise” bill that the Senate is about to pass makes me angry just to think about, but deep down I’ve long suspected that our government pretty much spies on us with impunity already. This Baltimore Sun news article pretty much confirms that suspicion:
“There’s virtually no branch of the U.S. government that isn’t in some way involved in monitoring or surveillance,” said Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian and fellow at the National Security Archives at The George Washington University. “We’re operating in a brave new world.”
[…] The Bush administration argues that the privacy and civil liberties protections in place for surveillance not covered by the FISA rules are “unprecedented.” In addition to the data-mining, use of financial transaction databases and satellite imagery, the surveillance includes monitoring the travel patterns of airline passengers.
[…] But critics say the safeguards don’t always work. Some blunders in the use of such protections have become public. New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright wrote in January about one such experience. In 2002, while he was researching The Looming Tower, his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on al-Qaida, two members of an FBI terrorism task force arrived at his home. Why, they asked, had his daughter been speaking with someone in the United Kingdom who was in touch with suspected al-Qaida operatives?
It wasn’t his daughter, he told them flatly. Wright himself had made the calls. And the person he contacted was a British civil rights lawyer who had asked him not to speak with her clients, some of whom are relatives of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant.
“My daughter is no terrorist – she went to high school with the Bush twins,” Wright said. “I was taken aback. They were apparently monitoring my phones.”
Wright said he was particularly surprised because he was aware of protections supposedly in place to conceal his name and other identifying information that would have been gathered during the creation of transcripts of the call.
Wright said he doubted the government would have been able to get a warrant for the information, and he said he didn’t know how the FBI obtained his daughter’s name, let alone got the impression that she was communicating with the British lawyer.
It’s somewhat ironic to note that the new FISA bill actually has more civil liberties protections than the other domestic spying programs that aren’t covered by it. It makes me feel foolish for getting so worked up about the new FISA rules because, really, the cows got out of the barn a long time ago. There’s been reports of various abuses and misuses of these programs for years now and every time a government agency gets new powers, such as the FBI and its “security letters” thanks to the Patriot Act, it’s usually not too long before we hear about them being abused. If anything I suppose I should be angry that the new FISA bill provides the government with even more power it can abuse, not that they haven’t abused the system under the old rules already. They’re just trying to make it quasi-legal to do so now that everyone knows about it.