Privacy SOS

Everything you need to know (almost) about surveillance in the news this week

This has been a really busy week for those of us who pay attention to government accountability, surveillance, and democracy issues. For starters, AP journalists Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman published incredible new details about the NYPD’s discriminatory surveillance against Muslims in the northeast, illuminating the extent to which the nation’s largest police department has become an ‘intelligence’ agency in its own right. 

Among the disturbing revelations, more of which are to come in the reporter duo’s soon-to-be published book, is a document officers prepared for NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly himself, which describes efforts to place a police informant on the board of directors of the Arab American Association of New York. That’s a community organization run by someone I am proud to call a sometimes-colleague and professional acquaintance, the great civil rights activist Linda Sarsour. You can listen to Sarsour’s reaction to this chilling news here.

Part of what is so scary about the NYPD surveillance program is that it developed under the leadership of a former senior CIA official, David Cohen, with CIA officers working undercover as NYPD cops. That same CIA has in recent years run international kidnapping, extralegal detention, and torture programs. To this day, the CIA continues to operate a paramilitary clandestine killing force that operates beyond any democratic accountability. Although officials have publicly acknowledged that the government conducts drone operations in countries where the US has not declared war, the Department of Justice, seeking to block public access to legal memos justifying the strikes, pretends otherwise in court

That’s partially why it’s chilling to learn, as we did this week in another blockbuster Snowden leak story, that the CIA has surpassed the NSA in size to become the US government’s largest spy agency. Thanks in part to its transformation into a paramilitary organization in the years after 9/11, and especially under the Obama administration, the CIA now boasts a budget of $14.7 billion for fiscal year 2013. The NSA’s 2013 budget is $10.8 billion, while the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which is responsible for signals intelligence operations, will spend $10.3 billion. 

Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know how much money the US government spends on its classified intelligence programs. But there remains a lot we do not know about these agencies and their classified budgets. After consulting with US officials, Washington Post editors and journalists Barton Gellman and Greg Miller decided to withhold most of the budget document they describe in broad outlines in the paper. You can read the summary of the ‘black budget’ for fiscal year 2013 here, and check out an interactive graphic the Post made to accompany its stories here.

These critical insights gleaned from journalists working with whistleblower Edward Snowden come amidst an increasingly grave crackdown on freedom of the press in the UK.

A report today tells us that Scotland Yard has been granted “specific permission to analyse whether [Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda], and others, have breached the Official Secrets Acts or a section of the Terrorism Act 2000 which make it an offence to possess information which may be useful to terrorists.” British authorities stopped Miranda at Heathrow airport in mid-August and detained him for 9 hours, seizing his electronics, as he traveled en route from Berlin to his home in Brazil. The UK government is now claiming that Miranda had 58,000 classified government documents with him, alleging that the files contained the identities of British secret agents. But Guardian journalist and Miranda’s husband Glenn Greenwald tweeted today that this cannot be true, because Miranda didn’t have the necessary passwords to decrypt the files he was carrying.

Perhaps unfamiliar with the first amendment, the British government has also recently asked the New York Times to destroy copies of the files that the Guardian newspaper shared with it in a collaboration bid. Times executive editor Jill Abramson reportedly ignored the UK request.

But it isn’t all bad news. This week the ACLU and the government filed briefs in the organization’s lawsuit against the NSA challenging the constitutionality of the bulk records collection program, which the government claims is authorized under section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. To the contrary, the ACLU argues that the bulk records collection violates the statute itself, as well as the United States constitution. Princeton professor Ed Felton filed a declaration in support of the ACLU’s lawsuit, which is the best description I’ve yet read of why metadata is so revealing and deserves fourth amendment protection. You can read the ACLU’s brief here, and the government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit here.

Also this week, Microsoft announced that, having failed to reach an agreement “acceptable to all,” it intends to move forward with a lawsuit against the federal government, seeking the “right to speak more freely” about government requests for its users’ data.

And finally, a victory. For the first time ever, a federal court has recognized that United States persons on the government’s secretive and Kafkaesque ‘No Fly Lists’ have constitutional rights. While the ruling is only a first step, it is an important victory for due process rights in the seemingly never ending ‘war on terror’. 

Note: if you are having a tough time keeping up with all the NSA leak stories, check out this cool timeline Al Jazeera America just published. It contains summaries of every story, and links to each of them. h/t to independent journalist and the timeline’s creator, Joshua Eaton.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.