New York Times Pushes False Notion Both Sides of Patriot Act Debate Are Wrong

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An analysis published in the New York Times falsely equates arguments for and against extending provisions of the PATRIOT Act, making it seem as if those against extension are just as wrong as those pushing to preserve government spying powers.

“There is little evidence in the history of the expiring Patriot Act powers to bolster the arguments that either supporters or opponents are making,” according to a description of the analysis written by Charlie Savage.

With the headline, “Reality Checks in Debate Over Surveillance Laws,” it appropriately calls out Republican senators like Tom Cotton, who have claimed a lapse in “this critical tool would lead to attacks.” Savage notes that studies and testimony have both shown that in the program’s existence zero terrorist attacks have been thwarted.

However, in the next paragraphs, Savage casts opponents of extending the provisions as individuals who are comparably wrong:

At the same time, proponents of ending the program say it poses risks to Americans’ private lives, by permitting the government to know who has been calling psychiatrists or political groups, for example. But despite the discovery of technical violations of the rules several years ago, no evidence has emerged that the program has been misused for political or personal gain. As a result, the privacy-minded critics have had to couch their warnings in hypothetical terms.

“Even if we stipulate for purposes of this discussion that no one within the N.S.A. is currently abusing this program for nefarious political purposes,” Senator Rand Paul, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, said in a filibuster-style floor speech last week, “can we say we are certain that will always be the case? Who is to say what might happen one year from now, two years from now, five years, 10 years or 15 years from now?”

While Savage may consider this to be equal to fear mongering about what will happen if spying powers are curtailed, “privacy-minded” opponents of the PATRIOT Act are not relying on the same hyperbole.

The only example Savage cites is very restrained and calculated. It is based on a concern that history could repeat itself because the country once experienced what it was like to have a domestic security state turned against citizens decades ago when J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director. And, in the example, Paul is making no claims about abuse for personal or political gain that cannot be backed up.

On the contrary, none of the supporters of the Patriot Act spying powers are as measured in their arguments. Not even officials from President Barack Obama’s administration are as level-headed in their rhetoric.

Administration officials have had a reporter from the Times print anonymous statements from them, one which suggests critics are playing “national security Russian roulette.” The administration maintains opponents are being “grossly irresponsible” because they want to have a debate and reform spying powers in a manner that much of the country actually supports.

Furthermore, it is inaccurate—and, at best, misleading—to write in any analysis that there is “no evidence” that “the program has been misused for political or personal gain.” (more…)

For 7 Years, FBI Defied Law for Seeking a Person’s Records Under Patriot Act

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A Justice Department inspector general’s report shows that for seven years the Federal Bureau of Investigation violated statutory law designed to restrict the agency’s surveillance power. During this period, the agency sought individuals’ records under the business records provision of the PATRIOT Act without adopting proper “minimization procedures” to protect privacy of US persons.

The FBI’s use of orders under Section 215 between 2007 and 2009 was examined by the inspector general. Whether the FBI complied with recommendations the inspector general made back in March 2008.

Section 215 makes it possible for the government to obtain “any tangible things,” such as books, records and other items from a business, organization or entity. They are supposed to be “relevant” to an “authorized investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a US person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” But the standard for relevance is very low.

The Section 215 provision is set to expire on June 1, and, as Senator Rand Paul comprehensively outlined while he held the Senate floor for over ten hours, there are many reasons to not reauthorize the provision. This report, which was completed eleven months ago but is dated May 2015, adds substantially to those reasons.

Under the PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, the law required that certain “minimization procedures” be adopted to ensure the handling of US persons’ data was done appropriately. It was not until March 7, 2013, that the Attorney General and the Justice Department officially incorporated these procedures into requests for records. (Marcy Wheeler points out the Justice Department did not actually fully comply with legally required procedures until after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed information.)

“The Attorney General’s and the [Justice] Department’s actions came 7 years after such procedures were required by the Reauthorization Act and 5 years after we concluded the interim procedures in 2006 were deficient,” the inspector general’s report [PDF] indicates.

In an understatement, the inspector general declares that the Justice Department “should have met its statutory obligation considerably earlier than March 2013.”

The report suggests that FBI personnel have made “strategic use of the legislative and technological changes by broadening the scope of materials sought in applications. Section 215 authority is not limited to requesting information related to the known subjects of specific underlying investigations. The authority is also used in investigations of groups comprised of unknown members and to obtain information in bulk concerning persons who are not the subjects of or associated with any FBI investigation.”

That seems hugely significant. FBI personnel are permitted to request records of persons who are not subjects of underlying investigations. The FBI uses the PATRIOT Act to request records on people when they do not even have an FBI investigation into those individuals.

FBI personnel with authorized access are apparently permitted to engage in some action involving records, which the Justice Department believes must keep secret. This action is used to determine whether records “reasonably appear to be foreign intelligence information, necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or evidence of a crime.”

National Security Division attorneys in the Justice Department and FBI case agents provided the inspector general with a “range of examples of material that would qualify under this criteria.” It is impossible for the public to know what this means because the Justice Department had it censored in the report.

Another term the FBI has conjured to expand its surveillance powers is “investigative value.” This is a term the inspector general discovered the FBI had introduced for allowing case agents “unconnected with the underlying investigation access to material received in response” to a Section 215 order. However, what “investigative value” means to the FBI and just how it stretches the boundaries of what the agency is authorized to do is anyone’s guess because, again, the agency’s definition is censored in the released report.

The “type of information that is categorized as metadata will likely continue to evolve and expand,” the report acknowledges. The FBI is obtaining “large collections of metadata,” which is data about the records but not the exact content from the records themselves. “Electronic communication transaction information” and two other types of data, which the FBI does not want the public to know about, are being sought through this provision of the PATRIOT Act. (more…)

Preemptive Prosecution: Iraqi American Arrested by FBI for Allegedly Lying About ‘Pledging Allegiance’ to ISIS Leader

J. Edgar Hoover Building - FBI Headquarters

An Iraqi-born US citizen in Mesquite, Texas, was arrested by the FBI for allegedly lying to agents about whether he had pledged allegiance to the “self-proclaimed” leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A federal judge ruled a day later that he is a “danger to the community” and must remain in jail.

One CNN report suggests this is an example of the government adopting a new and more aggressive stance in the aftermath of an attack on the Mohammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. Agents are taking “possible threats off the streets, instead of waiting longer to monitor and build an investigation against suspects.”

Yet, as in most FBI cases involving alleged terrorism suspects, this again seems like a preemptive prosecution, where an individual has been targeted because of his beliefs, ideology or religious affiliations that raise concerns for the government. It is a law enforcement practice that resembles practices that were relied upon by the FBI during the days of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO.

There is absolutely no evidence presented in a filed criminal complaint to suggest that Bilal Abood was plotting a terrorist attack. He is not accused of having weapons. The complaint lacks any evidence to suggest he was communicating with anyone in the Islamic State. However, he has been criminalized as if he is a terrorist.

The FBI appears to have started to spy on Abood as early as March 2013.

On March 29 of that year, the FBI claims he attempted to board a flight to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the Free Syrian Army. He was not allowed to travel, and, when FBI agents questioned him, he allegedly told agents he had only planned to visit family in Iraq.

What reasonable suspicion existed to stop Abood? That is not included in the criminal complaint.

On April 29, the FBI did not stop him when he traveled through Mexico and various other countries to get to Turkey.

Abood returned to the US on September 15. The FBI questioned him again. He allegedly admitted he traveled to Syria through Turkey and stated he had gone to Syria to fight with the Free Syrian Army. He stayed in a Free Syrian Army camp. But he denied that he had provided any “financial support” to the al-Nusrah Front or the Islamic State.

The FBI had his computer seized months later. Agents reviewed the contents on July 9, 2014. It allegedly revealed that he had “pledged an oath” to al-Baghdadi and viewed videos of Islamic State “atrocities such as beheadings” on the internet, according to the complaint.

Abood also allegedly used his Twitter account to “tweet and retweet information on al-Baghdadi.”

“I pledge obedience to the Caliphate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Here we renew our pledge to the Caliphate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi come on supporter where is the pledger,” Abood allegedly tweeted on June 19, 2014

FBI agents arrived at his home on April 14, 2015, nearly nine months after a review of his computer was conducted. The agents allegedly asked Abood if he knew it was a crime to lie to an FBI agent. Abood answered yes. Abood was then asked if he had pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Abood denied ever pledging allegiance and, since agents have a tweet suggesting he has pledged allegiance, the agents knew they had managed to get Abood to commit a crime.

But what made Abood an FBI target in the first place?

About the time that the FBI was spying on Abood’s movements the CIA was reportedly sending shipments of arms to Syrian rebel groups, like the Free Syrian Army. It seems preposterous for the US government to criminalize someone for showing interest in a foreign militant group backed by the US government.

The complaint indicates there was an informant involved. The informant allegedly reported that Abood was watching “al Qaeda videos on social media, along with videos about the creation of [the Islamic State].” He allegedly wanted to “help build the Islamic State.”

How was Abood planning to do that from a small city in Texas?

There are clear implications for freedom of expression if these statements are going to be enough in this country to criminalize and prosecute someone like they are a terrorist.

Abood’s girlfriend, Barbara Strebeck, has spoken out since the FBI arrested him. She claims the FBI retaliated against him because they requested he become a “spy” for them when he was planning to travel to Syria. He refused to be their informant.

She told a local CBS affiliate that Abood traveled to Syria because he was “curious about what was going on.” She defended him saying she has been with him for five years and he loves her and her kids and grandkids.

Strebeck insists the FBI setup Abood and that the “laptops federal authorities seized were only used to play video games, not to recruit” for the Islamic State.

What Strebeck and the FBI might agree upon is that of the active “cases” the FBI file, Abood was one of the best cases available to get a quick arrest and make it seem like the FBI was being appropriately vigilant in the aftermath of the attempted attack in Garland.

The public has no exact quotes said by Abood during any of the encounters with FBI agents; just a summary included in the criminal complaint.

Although there is still much to be learned about Abood’s case and how he came to be an FBI target, it fits a pattern where Muslim Americans are asked to be government informants and if they refuse they are coerced by being put on the watchlists, like the No Fly List. They become surveillance targets and eventually may even become the target of a sting operation, where they are induced to plan a terrorist attack so the FBI can claim they are keeping Americans safe from terrorism.

Creative Commons Licensed Photo from Flickr by cliff1066

FBI Spied ‘Beyond Its Authority’ on Keystone XL Opponents

No Tar Sands, Y'all

New investigation reveals agency’s actions amounted to ‘substantial non-compliance’ with its own rules

By Nadia Prupis

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) broke its own internal rules when it spied on Keystone XL opponents in Texas, violating guidelines designed to prevent the agency from becoming overly involved in complex political issues, a new report by the Guardian and Earth Island Journal published Tuesday has revealed.

Internal documents acquired by the outlets through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show how the FBI failed to get approval for launching investigations into Houston-based protesters, whom the agency labeled “environmental extremists,” and held a bias in favor of the controversial tar sands pipeline—currently awaiting federal approval—extolling its supposed economic benefits in one document which outlined reasons for spying on its opponents.

“Many of these extremists believe the debates over pollution, protection of wildlife, safety, and property rights have been overshadowed by the promise of jobs and cheaper oil prices,” the file states. “The Keystone pipeline, as part of the oil and natural gas industry, is vital to the security and economy of the United States.”

The Guardian reports:

Between November 2012 and June 2014, the documents show, the FBI collated inside knowledge about forthcoming protests, documented the identities of individuals photographing oil-related infrastructure, scrutinised police intelligence and cultivated at least one informant.

….However, the partially redacted documents reveal the investigation into anti-Keystone activists occurred without prior approval of the top lawyer and senior agent in the Houston field office, a stipulation laid down in rules provided by the attorney general.

Additionally, the FBI appeared to have opened its file on the Keystone XL opponents in 2013 following a meeting between officials from the agency and TransCanada, the company building the pipeline.

“For a period of time—possibly as long as eight months—agents acting beyond their authority were monitoring activists aligned with [direct action climate group] Tar Sands Blockade,” the Guardian writes.

Dozens of activists were arrested in Texas in late 2012, although none were accused of violent crime or property damage, according to key Tar Sands Blockade organizer, Ron Seifert.

“Less than a month after TransCanada showed the FBI a PowerPoint claiming that people opposed to [Keystone XL] need to be watched, Houston’s FBI office cuts corners to start an investigation; it’s not surprising but it is revealing of who they really work for,” Seifert told Common Dreams on Monday. “The FBI has been harassing and actively repressing communities of organizers for decades.”

Yet more records show that the FBI associated the Tar Sands Blockade, which organizes peaceful protests, with other “domestic terrorism issues.”

Other documents suggest that the Houston-based investigation was only one of a larger probe, possibly monitoring other anti-Keystone XL activists around the country.

“We’re not surprised,” Seifert continued. “We’re also not deterred. Movements for climate and environmental justice are activating people from diverse political backgrounds to take direct action to defend themselves from threats like [Keystone XL]. People are stepping out of the blind alleys of electoral politics and building grassroots power, and that’s scary for people who want a monopoly on power.”

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