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Thirteen Things the Government is Trying to Keep Secret from You


“We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted…the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.”

–US Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall  

The President, the Head of the National Security Agency (NSA), the Department of Justice, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and the Judiciary, are intentionally keeping massive amounts of information about surveillance of US and other people secret from voters.

Additionally, some are, to say it politely, not being factually accurate in what they are telling the public. These inaccurate statements are either intentional lies meant to mislead the public or they are evidence that the people who are supposed to be in charge of oversight do not know what they are supposed to be overseeing. The most recent revelations from the Washington Post, by way of Edward Snowden, indicate the NSA breaks privacy rules or overstep its legal authority thousands of times each year. Whether people are lying or do not know what they are doing, either way, this is a significant crisis. Here are thirteen examples. 

One. The Government seizes and searches all internet and text communications which enter or leave the US 

On August 8, 2013, the New York Times reported that the NSA secretly collects virtually all international email and text communications which cross the US borders in or out. As the ACLU says, “the NSA thinks it’s okay to intercept and then read Americans’ emails, so long as it does so really quickly. But that is not how the Fourth Amendment works…the invasion of Americans’ privacy is real and immediate.”

Two. The Government created and maintains secret backdoor access into all databases in order to search for information on US citizens 

On August 9, 2013, The Guardian revealed yet another Edward Snowden leaked document which points out “the National Security Agency has a secret backdoor into its vast databases under a legal authority enabling it to search for US citizens’ email and phone calls without a warrant.” This is a new set of secrets about surveillance of people in the US. This new policy of 2011 allows searching by US person names and identifiers when the NSA is collecting data. The document declares that analysts should not implement these queries until an oversight process has been developed. No word on whether such a process was developed or not. 

Three. The Government operates a vast database which allows it to sift through millions of records on the internet to show nearly everything a person does 

Recent disclosures by Snowden and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian demonstrate the NSA operates a massive surveillance program called XKeyscore. The surveillance program has since been confirmed by other CIA officials. It allows the government to enter a person’s name or other question into the program and sift through oceans of data to produce everything there is on the internet by or about that person or other search term.  

Four. The Government has a special court which meets in secret to authorize access for the FBI and other investigators to millions and millions of US phone, text, email and business records 

There is a special court of federal judges which meets in secret to authorize the government to gather and review millions and millions of phone and internet records. This court, called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court), allows government lawyers to come before them in secret, with no representatives of the public or press or defense counsel allowed, to argue unopposed for more and more surveillance. This is the court which, in just one of its thousands of rulings, authorized the handing over of all call data created by Verizon within the US and between the US and abroad to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The public would never have known about the massive surveillance without the leaked documents from Snowden.  

Five. The Government keeps Top Secret nearly all the decisions of the FISA court 

Nearly all of the thousands of decisions of the FISA court are themselves classified as top secret. Though the public is not allowed to know what the decisions are, public records do show how many times the government asked for surveillance authorization and how many times they were denied. These show that in the last three years, the government asked for authorization nearly 5000 times and they were never denied. In its entire history, the FISA court has denied just 11 of 34,000 requests for surveillance.  

As noted above, two US Senators warned the Attorney General ‘We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should stay when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.”  

Six. The Government is fighting to keep Top Secret a key 2011 decision of the FISA court even after the court itself said it can be made public 

There is an 86 page 2011 top secret opinion of the FISA court which declared some of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs unconstitutional. The Administration, through the Department of Justice, refused to hand this over to the Electronic Frontier Foundation which filed a public records request and a lawsuit to make this public. First the government said it would hurt the FISA court to allow this to be made public. Then the FISA court itself said it can be made public. Despite this, the government is still fighting to keep it secret.  

Seven. The Government uses secret National Security Letters (NSL) issued by the FBI to seize tens of thousands of records 

With a NSL letter the FBI can demand financial records from any institution from banks to casinos, all telephone records, subscriber information, credit reports, employment information, and all email records of the target as well as the email addresses and screen names for anyone who has contacted that account. Those who received the NSLs from the FBI are supposed to keep them secret. The reason is supposed to be for foreign counterintelligence. There is no requirement for court approval at all. So no requests have been denied. The Patriot Act has made this much easier for the FBI.  

According to Congressional records, there have been over 50,000 of these FBI NSL requests in the last three years. This does not count the numerous times where the FBI persuades the disclosure of information without getting a NSL. Nor does it count FBI requests made just to find out who an email account belongs to. These reported NSL numbers also do not include the very high numbers of administrative subpoenas issued by the FBI which only require approval of a member of the local US Attorney’s office.  

Eight. The National Security Head was caught not telling the truth to Congress about the surveillance of millions of US citizens[email protected]

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