Privacy SOS

State Department cable on surveillance contradicts top official’s congressional testimony

President Bush swearing in Mike McConnell as director of national intelligence in 2007.

A State Department cable released by Wikileaks concerning surveillance in Iraq appearst to directly contradict a high-level official's statements to congress and the public about the US government's warrantless surveillance operations.

On 2 March 2007, State sent a dispatch to its Baghdad embassy, copying the DIA, CIA, Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff. The cable raised concerns with a draft surveillance law proposed by the then-nascent Iraqi government. Essentially, the United States feared that Iraq’s proposal was too protective of ordinary people’s rights — though its diplomats didn’t put it that way.

The relevant portion of the cable describes what the State Department perceived as “overly-restrictive regulations on intelligence collection” in a draft of Iraq's Intelligence and National Security Law. What did the US government consider “overly restrictive”? 

Specifically, the offending “part entitled "Judicial Warrants" (Articles 84-92) stipulates that no intelligence agency may, under any circumstance, conduct electronic surveillance in Iraq without a warrant.  This is far more restrictive than U.S. law,” the cable reads.

Also in 2007, the New York Times published a major story with this headline: “Warrantless Wiretaps Not Used, Official Says”.

In other words, in March 2007 the State Department internally acknowledged that Iraq's proposal to require a warrant for all electronic surveillance was a standard “far more restrictive than U.S. law,” yet just months later the director of national intelligence told congress that US agencies have “conducted electronic surveillance only after seeking court-approved warrants.”

As we know, deception about the government's domestic surveillance continued over the subsequent years, and into the present.

Spencer Ackerman writes:

At a hearing of the Senate intelligence committee on 12 March, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden grew frustrated that he could not get a "direct answer" from Clapper about a question Wyden said he had been posing to the intelligence agencies in a series of letters for a year: when do US spies need a warrant to surveil Americans' communications?

"What I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Wyden asked Clapper.

"No, sir," Clapper said. "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly."

We now know that was a lie. The US government routinely and wittingly collects our our metadata and communications without individualized warrants.

That's a whole lot of lying, which leads me to wonder: What else is the government being sneaky about? Perhaps, thanks to Edward Snowden, we shall soon find out. 

Amidst wide ranging and diverse attacks on whistleblowers, I'd be remiss not to mention that we wouldn't know about this State Department cable or the extent to which the US government has deceived the public about its data gathering if it weren't for former insiders who risked their futures to tell us the truth. Evidently we can't rely on the government to do that.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.