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Who's Reading Your E-Mail?

Talk about unknown unknowns.

When it comes to torture, we have a pretty good idea of what it is we still don't know. But when it comes to that other massive abuse committed by the Bush administration in the name of counter-terrorism -- the warrantless surveillance of American citizens -- we still know very little about what was done, what was stopped, and, even worse, what's still going on.

A bitter reminder comes today in the form of a somewhat cryptic New York Times article alleging that e-mail messages in particular have been and are still being swept up into massive NSA databases in ways that even the notoriously obliging folks on the secret FISA court and in Congress are finding disturbing.

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau write:

The National Security Agency is facing renewed scrutiny over the extent of its domestic surveillance program, with critics in Congress saying its recent intercepts of the private telephone calls and e-mail messages of Americans are broader than previously acknowledged, current and former officials said.

Lichtblau and Risen wrote in April that the N.S.A. had been engaged in "overcollection" of domestic communications of Americans. Since then, they write today,

several Congressional committees have been investigating. Those inquiries have led to concerns in Congress about the agency’s ability to collect and read domestic e-mail messages of Americans on a widespread basis, officials said. Supporting that conclusion is the account of a former N.S.A. analyst who, in a series of interviews, described being trained in 2005 for a program in which the agency routinely examined large volumes of Americans’ e-mail messages without court warrants. Two intelligence officials confirmed that the program was still in operation.

Overcollection on a large scale

could lead to a significant number of privacy invasions of American citizens, officials acknowledge, setting off the concerns among lawmakers and on the secret FISA court.

And shedding some light on one of the greatest mysteries about the government's secret surveillance program, Risen and Lichtblau write:

Current and former officials now say that the tracing of vast amounts of American e-mail traffic was at the heart of a crisis in 2004 at the hospital bedside of John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, as top Justice Department aides staged a near revolt over what they viewed as possibly illegal aspects of the N.S.A.’s surveillance operations.

Finally, lest you think the NSA can simply be trusted not to abuse its access to a massive database of domestic e-mails, Lichtblau and Risen report that a former analyst told them that he had been informed that another analyst had at one point improperly accessed the personal e-mail of former President Bill Clinton.

By Dan Froomkin  |  June 17, 2009; 9:03 AM ET
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Great post Dan.

If anyone is interested we are having the first Privacy related "bar camp" this weekend in DC. PrivacyCampDC 6.20.

More here.

Shaun Dakin

Posted by: shimane1 | June 17, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

2004 ... election year. While rumors are far from proof, there have been whispers all along that the 04 Bush campaign had access to Kerry 04 emails. Make no mistake, knowing where you opponent is going, what the next day's theme of the day would be, how he plans to respond to your positions, for that matter, debate strategy, would be invaluable.

Just a thought.

Posted by: drinkof | June 17, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I can't wait to read the responses of the wingnuts to this blog about reading Americans email messages. The right wing has morphed during the Bush years. In the past they would have defended individual liberties against government intrusion. Now they defend government against its citizens.

When I was young the rallying cry was "a Red under every bed!" Now it is "a terrorist behind every phone call or email!"

Posted by: frazeysburger | June 17, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Big Brother is here, it's been here for awhile and it is going to stay. With a weak-kneed Congress and pliant Public, the Govt. will continue to do what it pleases and hardly a murmur will circulate through the Beltway or Main Street for that matter.

Posted by: winoohno | June 17, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I would be willing to bet my entire 201(k) that the NSA is still "collecting"/"intercepting" most emails and most phone calls originating in the US, plus all of those originating elsewhere that pass thru the US or India (that's why we gave them the sweetheart nuclear deal - India is on one end of the cable that transmits everything in the Middle East). Of course, there is the problem of defining "collecting" and/or "intercepting." If information passes thru a computer and a piece of software, not a person, parses it for certain words or phrases, does not find them and passes the communication, was that communication "collected" or "intercepted" or not? A good lawyer could argue either side of that case.

Posted by: dickdata | June 17, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

And don't forget, besides the illegal warrantless wiretapping activity of the NSA (and the private contractors hired to do much of this acitivity inside the U.S., with most telecom companies gleefully assisting) under the corrupt and criminal Bush/Cheney administration, the previous criminal Republican administration also turned, for the first time, U.S. spy satellites on U.S. soil (previously forbidden by law, and how the hell could anyone spot an al Qaeda sleeper terrorist cell from space, anyway?).

And wasn't there an incident from about six to seven years ago involving John Bolton, in which he demanded that the NSA turn over to him unredacted NSA hard copy so he could check out what American citizens were saying what in the NSA intercepted traffic?

No wonder the culture of corruption and secrecy Republicans, along with their conservative Blue Dog Democrat counterparts, are so desperate to atop any full-scale investigations into what Republicans did illegally during the Bush/Cheney years. What we keep seeing being revealed now is just the tip of the iceberg.

And until President Obama washes his hands of the previous administration and orders Attorney General Eric Holder to take off the gloves, appointing as many special prosecutors as necessary to get to the root of all the evil during the Bush/Cheney years, nothing will be resolved, and none of the corrupt and criminal Republicans will be held accountable, possibly even going to jail.

No wonder President Obama's poll numbers are slipping. Only a fool would fail to realize that a majority of U.S. citizens voted for President Obama just so he'd do something about exposing and prosecuting officials in the previous Republican administration for all the crimes they committed. This was the main reason I cast my vote for Barack Obama in November (just as I would have voted for any Democrat who won the Democratic Party's primary).

I am disappointed in President Obama. Whether it is keeping secret the White House visitors logs from his first days in office (as well as the visitor logs during the Bush/Cheney years), or having Justice Department lawyers use the exact same arguments as expounded by Bush Justice Department officials regarding one issue after another, this is definitely not the "change" I can believe in.

Posted by: wizard2000 | June 17, 2009 10:07 PM | Report abuse

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