Just when privacy advocates thought they might be gaining a toehold in the surveillance skirmishes, the FBI is armed with information to bolster its claim that its present surveillance doesn’t go far enough, although the fact that it uses its own in-house report to give them this new ammunition should not be lost on the general public.
Interestingly, while the report pushed for FBI to expand its cyber activities, it sidestepped the controversy over Director James Comey October remarks calling on the tech industry to weaken encryption on mobile devices.
The review, dubbed the 9/11 Review Commission castigates the agency for its performance related to that tragedy, accusing it of not moving fast enough and urging the FBI to recruit deeper networks of informants (human intelligence, or HUMINT), especially in Muslim circles. It also challenges the agency to beef up its technological abilities to bring it to parity with other intelligence agencies.
The report also advises bureaucratic changes, such as expanded training for FBI intelligence analysts and expanding cooperation with local and state law enforcement agencies. One shudders to think, when assessing the FBI’s subterfuge and furtive tactics in supplying stingray technology to local police, what new peril privacy will be in if there is even greater collaboration between it and local law enforcement.
The commission, composed of law enforcement retreads such as Reagan’s attorney general Ed Meese, does not apparently address the public privacy fallout from its recommended changes, and the report’s findings stop short of saying that the proposed improvements, had they been in effect prior to 9/11, would have detected the terrorist plot beforehand. Instead, the report devotes ample time and space to praise the agency for the way it has shared information with other agencies since 9/11.
But it does point out that the agency fails to support analysts and linguists who interpret intelligence behind the scenes, arguing that this imbalance between support personnel and field agents “needs urgently to be addressed to meet growing and increasingly complex national security threats.” These threats more and more are coming from “adaptive and increasingly tech-savvy terrorists, more brazen computer hackers, and more technically capable, global cyber syndicates,” the authors of the report write.
Not everyone agrees with the report’s findings, nor its implications, and many worry about its outcomes. Last year, a federal government’s civil liberties watchdog confirmed that FBI agents can search international communications from Americans collected in bulk from the NSA without even logging their access – to say nothing about getting warrants. And numerous studies, including a 2010 Justice Department report, have confirmed that the FBI abused its powers in issuing non-judicial papers known as “exigent letters” or “national security letters” to improperly access American’ phone data.
There are those, too, who worry the report may further embolden the FBI to increase pernicious practices against religious minorities in pursuit of terrorist links. In a particularly controversial episode, the FBI stands accused of tracking American Muslims constitutionally protected activities, and using them as leverage to create informants. This has led to situations that smack of entrapment, ensnaring mainstream Muslims rather than extremists bent on terrorism, and have angered the Muslim community.
The FBI points out, making political hay over the recent Boston Marathon bombings case, that one of the bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, delivered an angry outburst after hearing a January 2013 mosque sermon. It cites incidents like this as rationale for deepening its surveillance of mosques and other Muslim activities.
Perhaps buoyed by the praise in the report, last week Comey began lobbying lawmakers for $billions in enhanced funding for cyber capabilities and for increased integration with other intelligence agencies. In true Comey saber-rattling style, he presented Congress with an image of a dangerous world in which the FBI faces threats from “homegrown violent extremists in all 50 states” – from the “siren-song” of jihadists, to spies trying to steal US secrets using the Internet. Comey, of course, is famous for conjuring up images such as girls being kidnapped and unable to be rescued because mobile phones could not be unlocked!
As in all these cases, the cry for more law enforcement enhancements must be tempered by the specter of agency overreach in trampling on privacy, civil liberties and constitutional guarantees.