FRINFORMSUM 2/20/2014: Snowden Docs Reveal NSA Spied on American Law Firm and Targeted WikiLeaks, DHS Scraps Plan to Build National License Plate Tracking System, and More.
A Top Secret document leaked by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden, reveals that the agency spied on an American law firm representing Indonesia in a trade dispute against the US. The document raises both concerns for US lawyers with clients overseas and accusations of economic espionage. While the NSA is prohibited from targeting American organizations, including law firms, attorney-client conversations “do not get special protections under American law from N.S.A. eavesdropping,” and the agency “can intercept the communications of Americans if they are in contact with a foreign intelligence target abroad, such as Indonesian officials.”
Other Top Secret documents provided by Edward Snowden and posted on The Intercept (the new website edited by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill) disclose the agency’s strategic targeting of WikiLeaks, its supporters, and other activist groups –including Pirate Bay and Anonymous. The documents confirm that the NSA’s British counterpart, GCHQ, electronically monitored WikiLeaks website visitors; that the Obama administration urged foreign governments to file criminal charges against WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, over publication of Afghanistan war logs; that the Obama administration discussed labeling WikiLeaks “a malicious foreign actor” to ease extensive electronic surveillance of its activities; and that a 2008 US Army report identified ways to destroy the organization.
In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said the NSA should have informed Congress and the public about its surveillance programs far sooner. Clapper argued that the shock value of Snowden’s revelations are the main reason the public and privacy advocates are opposed to the programs, and that had the agency been more forthright, the programs would be more widely accepted. Regardless, in light of Snowden’s disclosures and President Obama’s avowed “efforts to overhaul the intelligence community,” outgoing NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander will be sending President Obama proposals for storing the data collected by the bulk phone records collection program outside the NSA sometime this week. In his NSA reform speech, Obama suggested that private phone companies might store the data, though the private companies themselves remain adamantly opposed to such a move.
The British High Court upheld London police’s August 18, 2013, detention of David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, at London’s Heathrow Airport. The police detained Miranda for nearly nine hours after invoking terrorism legislation, and seized devices that contained documents leaked by Edward Snowden, including nearly 60,000 “highly classified UK intelligence documents.” Miranda’s lawyers argued “that the government’s use of terrorism legislation to detain the Brazilian citizen was improper, disproportionate, and ran counter to the principle of free expression,” citing further concerns that the detention would intimidate other journalists. However, the Court ruled Miranda’s detention “was a proportionate measure in the circumstances.” The majority of the information Miranda carried was encrypted, and, as of August 30, 2013, Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Command, SO15, had only reconstructed 75 of the 60,000 documents.
The White House is seeking potential new bases in Central Asia for the CIA’s lethal drone program in Northwest Pakistan in the event US forces are forced to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year. However, officials are concerned that their ability to target operatives in Pakistan will be greatly reduced if they are forced to relocate from their Afghan bases, in large part because the amount of human intelligence required to support the strikes necessitates being close to Pakistan’s Northwest border. However, a recent Intercept report examines the NSA’s role in the CIA’s drone program, and argues that the NSA uses “electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method to locate targets,” and the CIA, “[r]ather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) scrapped its plan to build a national license plate tracking system to catch fugitive illegal immigrants yesterday “after privacy advocates raised concern about the initiative.” Earlier this week, a DHS spokeswoman announced that the database “could only be accessed in conjunction with ongoing criminal investigations or to locate wanted individuals,” and stressed that it “would be run by a commercial enterprise, and the data would be collected and stored by the commercial enterprise, not the government.” However, outcry arose after the Washington Post reported the program could “contain more than 1 billion records and could be shared with other law enforcement agencies, raising concerns that the movements of ordinary citizens who are under no criminal suspicion could be scrutinized.” Even though the national tracking system has been nixed, a 2012 Police Executive Research Forum report found that 71% of all US police departments already use automatic license plate tracking.
Finally this week, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently released a report examining FOIA statistics, backlogs, and potential policy options to improve the FOIA. The report cautions against taking all agency reporting at face value, pointing out, “a reduction in backlog does not necessarily mean an agency is more efficiently administering FOIA. For example, an agency could eliminate a backlog by denying complex requests that could otherwise be released in part.” The report also cites the Archive’s latest FOIA audit on outdated agency FOIA regulations, and suggests that Congress “may wish to consider whether it should direct agencies to examine their FOIA regulations, to determine whether they reflect statutory amendments, and to update any regulations that do not reflect FOIA, as amended.” The report further notes that Congress could monitor the expansion of (b)(3) exemptions to “prevent the creation of exemptions written more broadly than intended,” and preventing “certain agencies from operating without the public being able to access data and records.”