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NSA spying on Verizon phone records is nothing new

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And that is just the tip of the iceberg…

The “shocking” revelation that the NSA requested phone records from Verizon is not surprising to anyone who has been watching the rise of the police state that America has become since 9/11. The only thing new is now that a British newspaper published the story, the U.S. media and congress have to acknowledge it very publicly.

Today, lawmakers such as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) defended the practice as essential for national security. Others such as Rand Paul (R-KY) and Jeff Merkely (D-OR) called it, respectively, an “astounding assault on the constitution” and an “outrageous breach of Americans’ privacy.”

While Senator Feinstein stated that the practice has been in place since 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) more correctly pointed out that “it’s gone on for some seven years.” Indeed, the legal justification for monitoring the phone calls of U.S. citizens can be traced back to the Patriot Act, which became law on October 26, 2001.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO), both on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a March 2012 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that most Americans would be “stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act.”

Americans would be even more stunned to learn that Verizon’s approximately 120 million customers are not the only ones being snooped on by government agencies – nearly every American is. And most Americans who rely on print and TV news probably have never heard of fusion centers and exactly what they do at the expense of their tax dollars.

The U.S. government has spent up to $1.4 billion of taxpayer money since 2003 to create “threat fusion centers” under the guise of fighting terrorism. Fusion centers contain large data warehouses that collect information from all 16 US intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI, NSA, the military, state and local police agencies, as well as privately owned corporations and organizations. Information is data-mined from many sources, including the cell phone data and emails of every American citizen – not just Verizon customers.

There are as many as 72 of these facilities, operating under the control of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in efforts to engage national, state and local intelligence. There at least 50 state-based and 22 urban centers that were set up during the Bush presidency in cooperation between the DHS and the Department of Justice (DOJ). There is one of these facilities in Madison near the Dane county regional airport, at 2445 Darwin Road. (View an interactive map of their locations here).

In theory, local law enforcement officers, in conjunction with DHS officials, conduct surveillance and write up a report known as a Homeland Intelligence Report (HIR) for the DHS to review. If credible, the DHS would then spread the information to the larger intelligence community.

Anyone in congress or the media who feigns shock at the recent NSA request for Verizon customer records is either lying or ignorant. That shock, however, may also be a result of the inefficacy of these monolithic entities.

A two-year bipartisan report released last year by the U. S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has found that these “fusion centers” have not yielded any useful information to support federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts and have only gathered information that is used for ordinary criminal investigations that local law enforcement agencies are well-capable of doing. Even DHS officials told the panel the fusion centers produce “predominantly useless information” and “a bunch of crap.”

Five centers the Senate studied spent their federal terrorism grant money on “hidden ‘shirt button’ cameras,” cell phone tracking systems and other surveillance tools. They also spent taxpayer money on things like “dozens of flat-screen TVs” and SUVs, sometimes claiming that Chevrolet Tahoes were intended to help “respond to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive (CBRNE) incidents.”

Here a few more details of what the Senate report reveals:

  • A DHS intelligence officer filed a draft report about a U.S. citizen who appeared at a Muslim organization to deliver a day-long motivational talk and a lecture on positive parenting.
  • An intelligence officer decided to report on two men who were fishing at the US-Mexican border. A reviewer commented, “I…think that this should never have been nominated for production, nor passed through three reviews.”
  • A report was submitted on a motorcycle group for passing out leaflets informing members of their legal rights. A reviewer commented, "The advice given to the groups’ members is protected by the First Amendment."

And more from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which filed a lawsuit against the FBI, DOJ and NSA regarding fusion centers:

  • A DHS analyst at a Wisconsin fusion center prepared a report about protesters on both sides of the abortion debate, despite the fact that no violence was expected.
  • A Texas fusion center released an intelligence bulletin that described a purported conspiracy between Muslim civil rights organizations, lobbying groups, the anti-war movement, a former U.S. Congresswoman, the U.S. Treasury Department and hip hop bands to spread Sharia law in the U.S.
  • The same month, but on the other side of the political spectrum, a Missouri Fusion Center released a report on "the modern militia movement" that claimed militia members are "usually supporters" of third-party presidential candidates like Ron Paul and Bob Barr.
  • In March 2008 the Virginia Fusion Center issued a terrorism threat assessment that described the state's universities and colleges as "nodes for radicalization" and characterized the "diversity" surrounding a Virginia military base and the state's "historically black" colleges as possible threats.

Regarding the recent disclosure of the NSA court order for Verizon customer phone records, Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said in a statement:

Now that this unconstitutional surveillance effort has been revealed, the government should end it and disclose its full scope, and Congress should initiate an investigation. This disclosure also highlights the growing gap between the public’s and the government’s understandings of the many sweeping surveillance authorities enacted by Congress.

Like so many post-9/11 surveillance laws passed under the vague guise of “national security,” the policies of the U.S. government violate the civil liberties of ordinary Americans that should be guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and other laws.

The Senate report and the activity of fusion centers makes it clear that these facilities are designed to spy on American citizens, invading their privacy while doing nothing to stop terrorism. The request by the NSA to monitor the phone records of Verizon customers is only one pixel in a part of a much larger picture.

Many of the newly reborn proponents of civil liberties and constitutional rights were silent when those freedoms were being trampled upon as congress was running all over each other to let them be taken away shortly after 9/11. Now, our “news” is filled with “scandals” when the real things that Americans should be concerned about are ex post facto.

This is yet more evidence that America is turning from a democracy or constitutional republic into a corporate fascist state. Just look at the 14 defining characteristics of fascism and decide for yourself.

Sources:

The Guardian UK

NBC News

ACLU – Text of Patriot Act

Madison Independent Examiner – Fusion centers: Invading your privacy at your expense

EFF – Senate report on fusion centers

Public Intelligence

Senate report on state and local fusion centers

Senate report on fusion centers (pdf)

American Civil Liberties Union

ACLU – Michelle Richardson’s statement

Madison Independent Examiner – 14 defining characteristics of fascism

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