‘Zero checks & balances: Americans being swept up in massive surveillance net’

 ‘Zero checks & balances: Americans being swept up in massive surveillance net’
We’re seeing a constant degrading of Americans' privacy, whether they are in the US or traveling abroad, says Russ Baker, editor-in-chief of WhoWhatWhy.com. Former US intelligence officer Scott Rickard also joins the discussion.

The Trump administration is calling on Congress to reauthorize a surveillance law, which is due to expire at the end of the year.

Moreover, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and National Intelligence Director Dan Coats on Monday asked Congress in a letter to reauthorize a section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) scheduled to expire at the end of the year.

The letter, which can be read here, argues that Section 702 of FISA "produces significant foreign intelligence that is vital to protect the nation against international terrorism and other threats."

Critics, however, say the FISA provisions, which Sessions and Coats want to see made permanent, are steadily eroding civil rights.

RT:  If this surveillance law is reauthorized, what will it mean for everyday people?

Russ Baker: My concern here regarding FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) is that it was originally established in 1978 as a protection against abuses that were being committed by representatives of the US government. Over the years, this law has been turned around to itself become a vehicle for abuses. And we’ve seen tremendous ones. We also saw, for example, under President George W. Bush they violated the provision that they could not go after alleged terrorist organizations without getting a court order. They went right ahead, and they did that, and there were no serious repercussions. Now, as I understand, what they’d like to do is make this law permanent. So we’re seeing a constant degrading of the protections of the rights of Americans, whether they are in the US or they’re traveling abroad because they’ve created this tremendous net. Since 2001, it has been expanded to create all manner of electronic communications. Ostensibly this is only supposed to be targeting foreigners. But, for example, I am speaking to you – they could be targeting you. You could be on some kind of list as a foreign organization, and therefore I am getting swept up even though I am an American citizen.

RT:  Officials say the act is vital to national security. Why are so many people worried about it then?

Russ Baker: They’re worried because you have to have safeguards in place. A lot of these things are based on somebody’s judgment, what is considered to be a terrorist, a problem for a country. A lot of these things are very, very subjective because it depends on the values of the administration that is in power. We also have seen these abuses – for example, they can go to a telephone company and ask them to turn over all of their call records with the notion that this is sweeping up these foreign communication. So the potential for abuse is absolutely unlimited.

I want to point out that even the part of FISA that supposedly does control abuses, where they require a court order, and that is only in certain cases, it is quite staggering to learn that the court itself, they are all appointed by one person, Chief Justice John Roberts. He basically appoints whoever he wants. There are no checks and balances. I know that Congressional Intelligence Committee themselves have expressed real concern about this.

'Harvesting private information'

Scott Rickard, former US intelligence officer

RT:If this surveillance law is reauthorized, what will it mean for ordinary people?

Scott Rickard: It would be a continued collection and harvesting of personal information. Unfortunately, the means in which the NSA and other intelligence communities collect this information is basically all or nothing with solutions like companies from Glimmerglass - their solution harvests all the communications across all fiber networks. And that information is stored for future reference. That being said – this information is right now being collected and harvested.

What this really is designed for is the ability to go and research this data, and basically target certain individuals. And for Americans, they should be aware that now the information is being harvested it is readily available to any intelligence community that has access to it. So it is a violation of our rights to privacy as Americans, and it should be looked at very seriously, as well as our allies around the world. Obviously Angela Merkel would be targeted very simply under this permanent law. And it is interesting to see the individuals that are pushing this permanent law. Dan Coats, for example, this is a guy who is tremendously Islamophobic; this is a guy who is tremendously religious. Appointing this man as DNI (Director of National Intelligence) is just indicative of the kind of irresponsible appointments that Trump has put under his administration.

RT:  There is always this tradeoff that no free society can be fully free, and a government has responsibility on some level to look out for their citizens. Proponents of this say the act is vital to national security. Why are critics so worried about it then?

SR: The critics are worried about it because it does violate our privacy. Unfortunately, our privacy has been violated for decades, beginning with our financial data. Back in the 1950’s, it was very readily accessible through the means in which the intelligence community put together. People are becoming more aware of how overwhelming and how broad the intelligence collection efforts are.

What people are looking at is: enough is enough; this is not about national security, as an intelligence operative. As an intelligence collection analyst, I absolutely agree that we’re collecting everything and anything we could … If you look at the situation where Donald Trump had leakers in his administration whereby the intelligence community was leaking information about his intelligence operations. That’s how far this goes because access goes to organizations, it doesn’t go to government organizations. And these organizations aren’t managed in the best way.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.