Federal watching rampant these days

2013-06-08T00:00:00Z Federal watching rampant these daysAnita Kumar and Michael Doyle Mcclatchy Newspapers Arizona Daily Star

WASHINGTON - Welcome to the new normal, the U.S. national security state that's grown like mad since the 9/11 terrorist attacks nearly a dozen years ago.

Personal privacy has shrunk. Government secrecy has grown. Law enforcement intrusions, both overt and covert, are routine.

And while airport security lines hint at how life changed following Sept. 11, 2001, the full scope and apparent irrevocability of the changes nearly defy description. Street cameras track your movements. Strangers can read your emails. Police can spy on your political gatherings.

And it's all become so commonplace that most of the time, like the frog in a pot of warming water, we take it for granted.

"Some of the impacts have been obscured," Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said Friday. "One could say that personal privacy has been compromised for years, but we are only now becoming aware of it."

But even in this new normal, a shock or two can awaken the complacent. That's what happened this week, in a one-two punch.

On Wednesday, Britain's Guardian newspaper revealed that the National Security Agency is collecting telephone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers. On Friday, the Guardian and The Washington Post reported that the NSA is tapping directly into the central servers of nine companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook.

The ensuing uproar provoked President Obama to offer a defense.

"I think it's important for everybody to understand … that there are some trade-offs involved," Obama said Friday in San Jose, Calif. "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we're going to have to make some choices as a society."

In his first remarks on the pair of surveillance-program disclosures, Obama said he welcomes a debate but insisted that the nation must strike an appropriate balance between security and civil liberties.

Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice program on liberty and national security at the New York University School of Law, said she hopes this week's revelations serve as a wake-up call for Americans. But she said that while she welcomes Obama's desire for a debate, she noted that it's difficult when the programs have already started.

It's also a difficult debate when federal officials don't show all their cards.

In 2011, the federal government spent $11.3 billion on security-classification matters, according to the annual Information Security Oversight Office report. This was about three times the $3.7 billion spent on security classification in 1999.

The secret-keeping complicates the public's ability to figure things out.

Consider, for instance, how the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., strongly defended the telephonic record-gathering.

"Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States," Rogers said Thursday. "We know that. It's important."

But Rogers, a former FBI special agent, provided no specifics about the thwarted terrorist attack, though news agency accounts say it involved a much-publicized plan to bomb the New York subway system by a man living in Denver. Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-born U.S. resident, pleaded guilty to the plot in 2010.

In the new normal, political debate can be one-sided.

In a similar vein, secret courts make key decisions behind closed doors and say very little about them.

In 2000, before 9/11, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved 1,003 applications for secret wiretaps and physical searches, according to the court's sparse annual report. Last year, the court approved 1,789 applications for electronic surveillance and an additional 212 applications for secret access to business records, a 99.5 percent increase.

The details of the court's actions are, of course, secret.

So are the national-security letters issued by the FBI to compel production of financial and other records. Under provisions of the USA Patriot Act, recipients of the letters are prohibited from telling anyone about them. In an important but little seen decision issued in March, U.S. District Judge Susan Ilston in California ruled that the national-security letter's non-disclosure requirement violated the Constitution.

"The NSL non-disclosure provisions significantly infringe on speech regarding controversial government powers," Ilston wrote in a case brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.

Civil libertarians say Americans can't push back if they don't even know how their freedoms are eroding.

On StarNet: See video discussing the probe's expansion to the Internet at azstarnet.com/video

"One could say that personal privacy has been compromised for years, but we are only now becoming aware of it."

Steven Aftergood,

director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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