A while back, we noted a report showing that the “sneak-and-peek” provision of the Patriot Act that was alleged to be used only in national security and terrorism investigations has overwhelmingly been used in narcotics cases. Now the New York Times reports that National Security Agency data will be shared with other intelligence agencies like the FBI without first applying any screens for privacy. The ACLU of Massachusetts blog Privacy SOS explains why this is important:
What does this rule change mean for you? In short, domestic law enforcement officials now have access to huge troves of American communications, obtained without warrants, that they can use to put people in cages. FBI agents don’t need to have any “national security” related reason to plug your name, email address, phone number, or other “selector” into the NSA’s gargantuan data trove. They can simply poke around in your private information in the course of totally routine investigations. And if they find something that suggests, say, involvement in illegal drug activity, they can send that information to local or state police. That means information the NSA collects for purposes of so-called “national security” will be used by police to lock up ordinary Americans for routine crimes. And we don’t have to guess who’s going to suffer this unconstitutional indignity the most brutally. It’ll be Black, Brown, poor, immigrant, Muslim, and dissident Americans: the same people who are always targeted by law enforcement for extra “special” attention.
This basically formalizes what was already happening under the radar. We’ve known for a couple of years now that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the IRS were getting information from the NSA. Because that information was obtained without a warrant, the agencies were instructed to engage in “parallel construction” when explaining to courts and defense attorneys how the information had been obtained. If you think parallel construction just sounds like a bureaucratically sterilized way of saying big stinking lie, well, you wouldn’t be alone. And it certainly isn’t the only time that that national security apparatus has let law enforcement agencies benefit from policies that are supposed to be reserved for terrorism investigations in order to get around the Fourth Amendment, then instructed those law enforcement agencies to misdirect, fudge and outright lie about how they obtained incriminating information — see the Stingray debacle. This isn’t just a few rogue agents. The lying has been a matter of policy. We’re now learning that the feds had these agreements with police agencies all over the country, affecting thousands of cases.
On the one hand, I guess it’s better that this new data-sharing policy is acknowledged in the open instead of carried out surreptitiously. On the other hand, there’s something even more ominous about the fact that they no longer feel as though they need to hide it.
It’s all another sobering reminder that any powers we grant to the federal government for the purpose of national security will inevitably be used just about everywhere else. And extraordinary powers we grant government in wartime rarely go away once the war is over. And, of course, the nifty thing for government agencies about a “war on terrorism” is that it’s a war that will never formally end.