ACLU decries national 'surveillance society'

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A growth in government electronic surveillance in the decade since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 has cost the public privacy but not resulted in a safer United States, says the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a paper released in the days before the tenth anniversary of the attacks, the ACLU decries development of a national "surveillance society" that permits intelligence agencies to monitor communications without suspicion of wrongdoing in individuals.

The National Security Agency has access to "billions of American e-mails, phone calls and other communications" through a program at first deemed illegal by the Justice Department but later authorized by Congress. Legal challenges have been dismissed on the grounds that plaintiffs lacked standing because they could not prove that the NSA monitored their communications.

The Patriot Act has expanded the FBI's authority to use National Security Letters, permitting it to attain telecommunications, credit and financial information from private companies "about not just suspected terrorists, but anyone the FBI deemed 'relevant' to an FBI investigation," the report says. Although then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller testified in 2005 before Congress that no substantiated allegations of National Security Letters abuse existed, Justice Department inspector general reports have revealed "thousands of violations of law and policy,' the report says.

Two senators, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) have recently asserted that a classified executive branch interpretation of the Patriot Act permits surveillance "that is so broad that the public will be stunned and angered by its scope," the report adds.

Reports filed by local law enforcement as part of the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative place data permanently into federal databases, the report says, even if the activity reported is innocuous and commonplace.

"Yet for all the privacy we have relinquished in the name of preventing terrorism, and for all the national treasure spent on surveillance, we are no safer," the report says.

An analysis (.pdf) of National Security Letters from 2003 to 2005 by federal inspectors general found that as a result of the nearly 150,000 FBI letter requests made during those 3 years, the government secured only one conviction in a terrorism case and in no case prevented an actual terrorist plot.

By collecting so much electronic data, the government has also flooded intelligence agencies with "junk data, generating thousands of false leads that distract from the real threats," the report adds.

"In the name of finding the terrorist needle in a haystack, our government has built the biggest haystack in history--and it is growing all the time,'" the report concludes.

For more:
- download the paper, "A Call to Courage: Reclaiming Our Liberties Ten Years After 9/11" (.pdf)

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