Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 16, 2009

SAY HELLO TO 'OVERCOLLECTION'.... Abuse of the already-weakened protections relating to the NSA's eavesdropping program? You don't say.

The National Security Agency intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year, government officials said in recent interviews.

Several intelligence officials, as well as lawyers briefed about the matter, said the N.S.A. had been engaged in "overcollection" of domestic communications of Americans. They described the practice as significant and systemic, although one official said it was believed to have been unintentional.

The legal and operational problems surrounding the N.S.A.'s surveillance activities have come under scrutiny from the Obama administration, Congressional intelligence committees and a secret national security court, said the intelligence officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because N.S.A. activities are classified. Classified government briefings have been held in recent weeks in response to a brewing controversy that some officials worry could damage the credibility of legitimate intelligence-gathering efforts.

For what it's worth, the Justice Department conceded that there may have been problems -- which is to say, the NSA apparently went too far in its surveillance -- and officials "detected issues that raised concerns." The Office of the Director of National Intelligence alluded to "inadvertent mistakes," and the NYT report said officials claim to have "resolved" the issues by changing the program.

Whether the apparent abuses were deliberate or unintentional is hard to say; the report, for understandable reasons, is a little vague. Whether the agency "actively listened in on conversations or read e-mail messages of Americans without proper court authority, rather than simply obtained access to them," is also unclear.

But the part of the piece that's bound to raise eyebrows on the Hill points to "earlier domestic-surveillance activities" that included an attempt to "wiretap a member of Congress, without court approval, on an overseas trip." The wiretap never actually happened, but the NSA apparently believed the unnamed congressman, as part of a congressional delegation in the Middle East, may have come into contact with someone with ties to terrorism.

Of course, the fact that the NSA even considered oversight-free surveillance of a member of Congress has caused something of a stir. As Kevin Drum noted, this might be a silver lining of the apparent abuse: "[M]aybe this will finally motivate Congress to take NSA surveillance more seriously. Having one of their own members come within a hair's breadth of being an NSA target ought to concentrate their minds wonderfully, if anything will."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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Comments

Did Bush political operatives access the information and use it for political purposes?

Many are convinced that the answer to this question is YES.

Posted by: bakho on April 16, 2009 at 8:05 AM | PERMALINK

I'd be extremely curious as to how this "systemic" surveillance was applied. Mightn't we break it down into a series of demographics---say, for example, "political affiliation"?

Posted by: S. Waybright on April 16, 2009 at 8:11 AM | PERMALINK

Just a guess here. Perhaps the satellites and data mining computers were collecting far more data than was legal, but the Bush administration was interpreting the law such that it doesn't count unless someone actually looks at specific e-mails or listens to specific calls. And of course there will always be abuse.

As for political abuses, why use past tense? Wouldn't this be the first place the party of Rove would burrow people? I'd still like to know how many people are needed to link the President or other politicians to someone who can actually abuse the system. I'm guessing it's a small number.

Posted by: Danp on April 16, 2009 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

Could that member of Congress have been then-Sen. Obama?

Posted by: pol on April 16, 2009 at 8:27 AM | PERMALINK

Can you see anyone enlisting to fight to PREVENT Texas secession?

Posted by: Raenelle on April 16, 2009 at 8:55 AM | PERMALINK

If Congressmen haven't done anything wrong, they have nothing to worry about.

Posted by: johnsturgeon on April 16, 2009 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK

File under "totally predictable". And ditto what Drum said, though I'm not especially optimistic.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne on April 16, 2009 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

"The wiretap never actually happened, but the NSA apparently believed the unnamed congressman, as part of a congressional delegation in the Middle East, may have come into contact with someone with ties to terrorism."

Not necessarily, Steve. Maybe they just thought this particular congresscritter had an especially exciting sex life. Wouldn't be the first time, even for the NSA.

Posted by: azportsider on April 16, 2009 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

As Kevin Drum noted, this might be a silver lining of the apparent abuse: "[M]aybe this will finally motivate Congress to take NSA surveillance more seriously. Having one of their own members come within a hair's breadth of being an NSA target ought to concentrate their minds wonderfully, if anything will."
-----------------------

If.

Posted by: Cousin Tab Numlock on April 16, 2009 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

http://www.eff.org/press/archives/2009/04/05

April 6th, 2009
"Obama Administration Embraces Bush Position on Warrantless Wiretapping and Secrecy
Says Court Must Dismiss Jewel v. NSA to Protect 'State Secrets'"

Posted by: Luther on April 16, 2009 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

If Congressmen haven't done anything wrong, they have nothing to worry about.
Posted by: johnsturgeon on April 16, 2009 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK
*******************
If you would willfully abrogate your constitutional rights simply because YOU feel that you haven't done anything wrong, then you deserve to lose them. Just don't take mine along with you. The judgment of what is right and what is wrong depends upon those doing the judging. Without oversight, you place yourself at great peril. Think it through.

Posted by: In what respect, Charlie? on April 16, 2009 at 10:25 AM | PERMALINK

"If you would willfully abrogate your constitutional rights simply because YOU feel that you haven't done anything wrong, then you deserve to lose them. Just don't take mine along with you. The judgment of what is right and what is wrong depends upon those doing the judging. Without oversight, you place yourself at great peril. Think it through."

I'm pretty sure johnsturgeon was sarcastically mocking the common defense people use for civil liberties violations- i.e., let's see if Congress dismisses wiretapping as irrelevant now that it's one of their own.

"Could that member of Congress have been then-Sen. Obama?"

I was thinking Keith Ellison, the sole Muslim member of Congress.

Posted by: Jurgan on April 16, 2009 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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