Privacy SOS

Dragnet surveillance is about power and social control, not public safety

Attorney General Loretta Lynch says that USA Patriot Act dragnet spy powers must be extended or else the terrorists will get us.

Lynch said Friday the country would be “less safe” if Congress fails to renew surveillance programs included in the Patriot Act.

Lynch joined other top Obama administration officials, who are urging the Senate to pass the USA Freedom Act, which would reform the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk phone records collection program while renewing other key parts of the post-Sept. 11 law.

“Our biggest fear is that we will lose important eyes on people who have made it clear that their mission is to harm American people here and abroad,” Lynch told CBS News in her first interview since becoming attorney general.

If NSA’s phone metadata program expires completely, Lynch said the U.S. government would lose “important tools” to identify terror threats.

"I think that we run the risk of essentially being less safe," Lynch added. "I think that we lose the ability to intercept these communications, which have proven very important in cases that we have built in the past. And I am very concerned that the American people will be unprotected if this law expires."

Lynch didn't marshal any evidence to support her claims about the connection between dragnet spying and public safety. That's because there isn't one. Even the Department of Justice has acknowledged as much, writing in an Inspector General report that FBI agents interviewed couldn't identify "any major case developments" tied to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the provision the FBI claims enables dragnet spying.

Surveillance boosters have never been able to point to a circumstance—even one example—that proves dragnet surveillance is vital in stopping terrorism. Some insiders in the security state have observed that the bigger the haystack, the more difficult it is to successfully use intelligence information to identify and track threatening people. More information is not better. Better information is better, they say.

Loretta Lynch says she fears that if the Patriot Act isn't reauthorized, "we will lose important eyes on people who have made it clear that their mission is to harm American people here and abroad." That's total nonsense. Anyone who "makes it clear" that they want to kill Americans is someone a judge would authorize targeted surveillance against. The government should leave the rest of us out of it.

Just about every recent terrorist attack on US and European soil has been committed by someone known to law enforcement. That's true for the Garland, Texas shooter and for Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who blew up the Boston Marathon in April 2013. The government doesn't need to spy on you and me in order to track people it already suspects of being up to no good.

You might be wondering: If dragnet spying doesn't stop terrorism, and most terrorists are known to law enforcement, why do the FBI and the new Attorney General insist on renewing the Patriot Act's worst provisions? It's an important question, with a depressing answer.

The reason Lynch's claims about dragnet spying don't add up is because they are based on a perversion of the true purpose served by society wide surveillance. While the Patriot Act doesn't stop terrorism, it's quite good at enabling social and political control, and finding people who are vulnerable and may be easily coerced into becoming FBI informants.

If surveillance boosters were honest about why they want these powers, you might hear them talking less about terrorism and more about power. Add your voice: take action now to tell congress to reject dragnet surveillance.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.