FRINFORMSUM 1/09/2014: Obama Considers Surveillance Changes, the FBI is “just keeping up with the times,” and Much More.
Today President Obama will meet with a group of lawmakers to discuss challenges to the federal government’s surveillance programs, including the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of phone records. President Obama’s intelligence advisory panel recently presented him with 46 recommendations for changes to current surveillance practices, and the President’s aides say they expect him to act on some of them. Changes the President is “likely” to make include placing a public advocate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) and “shifting the NSA’s bulk collection and storage of domestic telephone calling records to private hands.” The President will announce any changes to the government’s surveillance programs before his January 28 State of the Union Address.
The NSA has already begun exploring alternatives for storing vast amounts of phone data and “is examining whether there are feasible ways for third parties such as phone companies to hold the data while allowing the agency to exploit the records.” One of many hurdles to this alternative is the phone companies’ aversion to it. The companies argue “storing the data for the NSA would lead to a flood of requests from local prosecutors, federal agents and divorce attorneys, unless legislation mandates it be used strictly for government counterterrorism purposes” –not to mention concerns that capturing and storing the information without a warrant in the first place violates the Fourth Amendment.
Last week the Justice Department submitted its appeal to a December 16 ruling that called the NSA’s phone data collection program “almost certainly” unconstitutional. The Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence called the December 16 ruling a “lone contrary decision,” and last week the Obama administration revealed that, despite the legal setback, FISC renewed another order allowing the NSA’s domestic phone record collection to continue. In a separate case two weeks after the December 16 ruling, a federal judge in New York rejected the ACLU’s challenge to the phone data collection program and ruled that it was legal. The ACLU plans to appeal.
Elsewhere in the courts, a federal appeals court ruled “that a confidential Justice Department legal opinion on the scope of the FBI’s surveillance authority can remain secret.” The document in question is a 2010 Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel memo “that allowed the FBI to informally gather customer phone call records from telecommunications companies.”
The FBI has made an interesting change to the “primary functions” listed on its fact sheet distributed to the public. Now, instead of citing “law enforcement” as its “primary function,” the FBI lists “national security” as its main priority. A spokesman for the agency said the change in the bureau’s mission statement “is just keeping up with the times,” which have changed drastically since 9/11.
Also this week, the burglars who broke into an FBI field office on March 8, 1971, revealed their identities for the first time in order to be interviewed for a new book detailing the heist. The group broke into an FBI office in Media, PA to steal documents confirming the bureau took part in “extensive spying” on dissident groups, then mailing them to journalists. The leaks dealt “the first significant blow” to the bureau in its history, and revealed the existence of COINTELPRO, a series of covert projects carried out by the bureau intended to disrupt domestic political groups.
A huge collection of FBI documents on the CIA between 1946 and the mid-1990s were recently highlighted on Matthew Aid’s blog. According to Aid, “[t]his compendium consists of thousands of pages of documents about the FBI’s oftentimes tortured relationship with the CIA. Many of these documents I have never seen before, and I have been at this for over 25 years.”
In FOIA news, the Navy mistakenly sent an NBC reporter a memo explaining the attempts the agency was going to take dodging his FOIA request on the Navy Yard shooting. While that communication is something of a head-scratcher, it’s not nearly as baffling as the NSA’s response to Senator Bernie Sanders’ letter asking if the agency has spied, or is currently spying, on members of Congress or other elected American officials. The NSA’s response? “NSA’s authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of US persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all US persons. NSA is fully committed to transparency with Congress. Our interaction with Congress has been extensive both before and since the media disclosures began last June.”
Finally this week, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency just unveiled a History Page on its website. The site includes “a 76-page compendium of information about the command leadership of NGA and its predecessor organizations; and an 82-page chronology of key events in the history of NGA and its antecedents.” Hopefully this page is a sign of more documents to come from a very interesting agency.
Happy FOIA-ing in 2014!