Government Crosses New Privacy Line

Government Crosses New Privacy Line

• Feds given permission to collect, store records on people who are not suspected of crimes

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information Act requests and interviews conducted with officials at numerous government agencies by The Wall Street Journal uncovered the behind-closed-doors creation this year of “a government dragnet, sweeping up millions of records about U.S. citizens—even people suspected of no crime.” More ominously, the new policy will “allow databases of U.S. civilian information to be given to foreign governments for analysis of their own…to look for clues that people might commit future crimes.”

These changes were precipitated by the “spectacular” failure of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to identify a “terrorist” on their so-called “watchlist,” and the additional failure of the eight-year-old National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) “to query other government databases about him.” Although the changes were vehemently opposed by “the privacy offices of both Homeland Security and the Department of Justice,” their concerns were ignored and the “attorney general, Eric Holder…signed the new guidelines,” who were “more concerned about missing the next terrorist threat” than Americans’ privacy.

As strange as it may sound, a pair of dirty underwear that failed to explode aboard a flight to Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day 2009 is responsible for this increased surveillance of Americans accused of no crime. A Nigerian 23-year-old, referred to as the “Underwear Bomber,” was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, for attempting to detonate plastic explosives sewn into his underwear.

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This assault on privacy is just the latest in the long line of incremental steps designed to gut the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was incorporated into the Bill of Rights to protect against unreasonable searches and seizures, but doesn’t protect against “records the government creates in the normal course of business with citizens.” “The rules now allow the [NCTC] 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,” explained the Journal, “NCTC can copy entire government databases,” and “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.” Incredibly, the “list could potentially include almost any government database, from financial forms submitted by people seeking federally backed mortgages to the health records of people who sought treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals.”

The federal Privacy Act of 1974, created by Congress “to prevent government agents from rifling through government files indiscriminately,” has a loophole big enough to fly a space shuttle through. The “Act allows agencies to exempt themselves from many requirements by placing notices in the Federal Register, the government’s daily publication of proposed rules,” which “are rarely contested by government watchdogs or members of the public.” “As a result,” explained the Journal, the “program’s opponents within the administration…couldn’t argue that the program would violate the law. Instead, they were left to question whether the rules were good policy.”

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Dave Gahary, a former submariner in the U.S. Navy, is the host of AFP’s ‘Underground Interview’ series.

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