The rise of government surveillance is a troublesome legacy of the September 11 attacks. Today, video cameras are visible everywhere in public places, recording people’s every move. But what about spying that can’t be spotted?
Ten years after 9/11, new questions are being raised about what the US government is secretly doing on the internet and through satellites, using the Patriot Act and other national security law as justification.
Two American senators with access to top-secret intelligence raised the alarm in May, suggesting that the invasion of law-abiding Americans’ privacy was being carried out clandestinely – and that people would be shocked if they knew the extent.
“I want to deliver a warning this afternoon,” Senator Ron Wyden said on May 26 during a Senate debate. “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”
Exactly what activities US agencies are carrying out remains unclear. Senator Wyden and Senator Mark Udall – also on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – have been unable to elaborate on their accusations because of official secrecy law.
However, observers surmise that ordinary people may be caught up in an electronic dragnet searching for terrorists. Civil liberties advocates suggest that intelligence and law-enforcement agencies may be reading and cataloguing people’s e-mails in databases, as well as tracking their mobile phone locations.
US Justice Department public affairs officer Dean Boyd dismissed the senators’ allegations. “It’s quite unfortunate that your facts are so incorrect,” Boyd told Al Jazeera English when asked about Wyden and Udall’s comments.
Boyd highlighted one provision of the Patriot Act in his response, Section 215. “Contrary to various claims in recent months and years, Section 215 is not a secret law, nor has it been implemented under secret legal opinions by the Justice Department,” he said.
But the American Civil Liberties Union hasn’t been satisfied with that answer. The group has launched an extensive campaign to find out exactly how portions of the Patriot Act have been interpreted, and whether e-mails were being swept up and mobile phones tracked without probable cause.
Michael German is a 16-year FBI veteran of counterterrorism operations who quit the bureau and later joined the ACLU. He told Al Jazeera English: “It’s clear the government is broadly collecting information regarding innocent Americans. It appears officials no longer need individualised suspicion, and a person’s good conduct does not protect them from scrutiny.”
The evolution of national security law
Congress overwhelmingly passed the original Patriot Act in October 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, arguing that its broad powers were necessary to protect the country from terrorism. Civil liberties advocates have long questioned whether some aspects of the law threatened people’s privacy.
As debate took place in May on a vote to extend the Patriot Act for another four years, Senators Wyden and Udall warned that the executive branch had come up with a secret legal theory about what personal information it could collect, which didn’t dovetail with a plain reading of the text.
Wyden and Udall continued to press for transparency after the Patriot Act extension was passed in late May. They sent a letter to the Director of National Intelligence, James R Clapper, who oversees 16 spy agencies, including the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency. The senators asked whether legal safeguards were in place to protect the electronic communications of law-abiding Americans under another security law, the Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA).