Capitol Hill Blue & Barton Gellman /Washington Post – 2005-11-13 23:29:04
White House Keeps Dossiers
on More than 10,000 ‘Political Enemies’
Doug Thompson / Capitol Hill Blue
Spurred by paranoia and aided by the USA Patriot Act, the Bush Administration has compiled dossiers on more than 10,000 Americans it considers political enemies and uses those files to wage war on those who disagree with its policies.
The “enemies list” dates back to Bush’s days as governor of Texas and can be accessed by senior administration officials in an instant for use in campaigns to discredit those who speak out against administration policies or acts of the President.
The computerized files include intimate personal details on members of Congress; high-ranking local, state and federal officials; prominent media figures and ordinary citizens who may, at one time or another, have spoken out against the President or Administration.
Capitol Hill Blue has spoken with a number of current and former administration officials who acknowledge existence of the enemies list only under a guarantee of confidentiality. Those who have seen the list say it is far more extensive than Richard Nixon’s famous “enemies list” of Watergate fame or Bill Clinton’s dossiers on political enemies.
“How is that you think Karl (Rove) and Scooter (Libby) were able to disseminate so much information on Joe Wilson and his wife,” says one White House aide. “They didn’t have that information by accident. They had it because they have files on those who might hurt them.”
White House insiders tell disturbing tales of invasion of privacy, abuse of government power and use of expanded authority under the USA Patriot Act to dig into the personal lives of anyone the administration deems an enemy of the state.
Those on the list include former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, former covert CIA operative Valarie Plame, along with filmmaker and administration critic Michael Moore, Senators like California’s Barbara Boxer, media figures like liberal writer Joe Conason and left-wing bloggers like Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (the Daily Kos) and Ana Marie Cox (Wonkette).
“If you want to know who’s sleeping with whom, who drinks too much or has a fondness for nose candy, this is the place to find it,” says another White House aide. “Karl (Rove) operates under the rule that if you fuck with us, we’ll fuck you over.”
Rove started the list while Bush served as governor of Texas, compiling information on various political enemies in the state and leaking damaging information on opponents to friends in the press. The list grew during Bush’s first run for President in 2000 but the names multiplied rapidly after the terrorist attacks of 2001 and passage of the USA Patriot Act. Using the powers under the act, Rove expanded the list to more than 10,000 names, utilizing the FBI’s “national security letters” to gather private and intimate details on American citizens.
National security letters, which can be issued by an FBI supervisor without a judge’s review or approval, allows the bureau to examine the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of any Americans.
The FBI issues some 30,000 national security letters a year to employers, credit bureaus, banks, travel agencies and other sources of information on American citizens. The Patriot Act also forbids anyone receiving such a letter to reveal they have passed on information to the federal government.
“Those letters helped us build files quickly on those we needed to know more about,” says a former White House aide.
The database of political enemies of the Bush administration is not maintained on White House computers and is located on a privately-owned computer offsite, but can be accessed remotely by a select list of senior aides, including Rove. The offsite location allowed the database to escape detection by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald during his investigation of the Valerie Plame leak. The database is funded by private donations from Bush political backers and does not appear on the White House budget or Federal Election Commission campaign reports.
Bush is not the first President to use the FBI to keep track of his enemies. Richard M. Nixon used FBI files to try and discredit his opponents, including Daniel Ellsberg, the Department of Defense employee who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. Bill Clinton used the FBI to compile dossiers on critics like Conservative Congressman Bob Barr and legal gadfly Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch.
But worried White House insiders say the intelligence gathered by the Bush administration is far larger, more extensive and potentially more damaging than the excesses of previous occupants of the White House. Even worse, it dovetails into a pattern of spying on Americans that has become commonplace since Bush took office.
“We’re talking about Big Brother at its most extreme,” says one White House staffer. “We know things about people that their spouses don’t know and, if it becomes politically expedient, we will make sure the rest of the world knows.”
The White House press office did not respond to a request for an interview on this story and did not return phone calls seeking comment.
© Copyright 2005 Capitol Hill Blue
The FBI’s Secret Scrutiny:
In Hunt for Terrorists, Bureau Examines
Records of Ordinary Americans
Barton Gellman / Washington Post
(November 6, 2005) — The FBI came calling in Windsor, Conn., this summer with a document marked for delivery by hand. On Matianuk Avenue, across from the tennis courts, two special agents found their man. They gave George Christian the letter, which warned him to tell no one, ever, what it said.
Under the shield and stars of the FBI crest, the letter directed Christian to surrender “all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person” who used a specific computer at a library branch some distance away. Christian, who manages digital records for three dozen Connecticut libraries, said in an affidavit that he configures his system for privacy. But the vendors of the software he operates said their databases can reveal the Web sites that visitors browse, the e-mail accounts they open and the books they borrow.
Christian refused to hand over those records, and his employer, Library Connection Inc., filed suit for the right to protest the FBI demand in public. The Washington Post established their identities — still under seal in the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit — by comparing unsealed portions of the file with public records and information gleaned from people who had no knowledge of the FBI demand.
The Connecticut case affords a rare glimpse of an exponentially growing practice of domestic surveillance under the USA Patriot Act, which marked its fourth anniversary on Oct. 26. “National security letters,” created in the 1970s for espionage and terrorism investigations, originated as narrow exceptions in consumer privacy law, enabling the FBI to review in secret the customer records of suspected foreign agents.
The Patriot Act, and Bush administration guidelines for its use, transformed those letters by permitting clandestine scrutiny of US residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.
The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters — one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people — are extending the bureau’s reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.
Issued by FBI field supervisors, national security letters do not need the imprimatur of a prosecutor, grand jury or judge. They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress.
The executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.
The burgeoning use of national security letters coincides with an unannounced decision to deposit all the information they yield into government data banks — and to share those private records widely, in the federal government and beyond. In late 2003, the Bush administration reversed a long-standing policy requiring agents to destroy their files on innocent American citizens, companies and residents when investigations closed. Late last month, President Bush signed Executive Order 13388, expanding access to those files for “state, local and tribal” governments and for “appropriate private sector entities,” which are not defined.
National security letters offer a case study of the impact of the Patriot Act outside the spotlight of political debate. Drafted in haste after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the law’s 132 pages wrought scores of changes in the landscape of intelligence and law enforcement. Many received far more attention than the amendments to a seemingly pedestrian power to review “transactional records.” But few if any other provisions touch as many ordinary Americans without their knowledge.
Senior FBI officials acknowledged in interviews that the proliferation of national security letters results primarily from the bureau’s new authority to collect intimate facts about people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
Criticized for failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot, the bureau now casts a much wider net, using national security letters to generate leads as well as to pursue them. Casual or unwitting contact with a suspect — a single telephone call, for example — may attract the attention of investigators and subject a person to scrutiny about which he never learns.
A national security letter cannot be used to authorize eavesdropping or to read the contents of e-mail. But it does permit investigators to trace revealing paths through the private affairs of a modern digital citizen.
The records it yields describe where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work.
As it wrote the Patriot Act four years ago, Congress bought time and leverage for oversight by placing an expiration date on 16 provisions. The changes involving national security letters were not among them. In fact, as the Dec. 31 deadline approaches and Congress prepares to renew or make permanent the expiring provisions, House and Senate conferees are poised again to amplify the FBI’s power to compel the secret surrender of private records.
The House and Senate have voted to make noncompliance with a national security letter a criminal offense. The House would also impose a prison term for breach of secrecy.
Like many Patriot Act provisions, the ones involving national security letters have been debated in largely abstract terms. The Justice Department has offered Congress no concrete information, even in classified form, save for a partial count of the number of letters delivered. The statistics do not cover all forms of national security letters or all US agencies making use of them.
“The beef with the NSLs is that they don’t have even a pretense of judicial or impartial scrutiny,” said former representative Robert L. Barr Jr. (Ga.), who finds himself allied with the American Civil Liberties Union after a career as prosecutor, CIA analyst and conservative GOP stalwart. “There’s no checks and balances whatever on them. It is simply some bureaucrat’s decision that they want information, and they can basically just go and get it.”
‘A Routine Tool’
Career investigators and Bush administration officials emphasized, in congressional testimony and interviews for this story, that national security letters are for hunting terrorists, not fishing through the private lives of the innocent. The distinction is not as clear in practice.
Under the old legal test, the FBI had to have “specific and articulable” reasons to believe the records it gathered in secret belonged to a terrorist or a spy. Now the bureau needs only to certify that the records are “sought for” or “relevant to” an investigation “to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”
That standard enables investigators to look for conspirators by sifting the records of nearly anyone who crosses a suspect’s path.
“If you have a list of, say, 20 telephone numbers that have come up . . . on a bad guy’s telephone,” said Valerie E. Caproni, the FBI’s general counsel, “you want to find out who he’s in contact with.” Investigators will say, “ ‘Okay, phone company, give us subscriber information and toll records on these 20 telephone numbers,’ and that can easily be 100.”
Bush administration officials compare national security letters to grand jury subpoenas, which are also based on “relevance” to an inquiry. There are differences. Grand juries tend to have a narrower focus because they investigate past conduct, not the speculative threat of unknown future attacks.
Recipients of grand jury subpoenas are generally free to discuss the subpoenas publicly. And there are strict limits on sharing grand jury information with government agencies.
Since the Patriot Act, the FBI has dispersed the authority to sign national security letters to more than five dozen supervisors—the special agents in charge of field offices, the deputies in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, and a few senior headquarters officials.
FBI rules established after the Patriot Act allow the letters to be issued long before a case is judged substantial enough for a “full field investigation.” Agents commonly use the letters now in “preliminary investigations” and in the “threat assessments” that precede a decision whether to launch an investigation.
“Congress has given us this tool to obtain basic telephone data, basic banking data, basic credit reports,” said Caproni, who is among the officials with signature authority. “The fact that a national security letter is a routine tool used, that doesn’t bother me.”
If agents had to wait for grounds to suspect a person of ill intent, said Joseph Billy Jr., the FBI’s deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, they would already know what they want to find out with a national security letter. “It’s all chicken and egg,” he said. “We’re trying to determine if someone warrants scrutiny or doesn’t.”
Billy said he understands that “merely being in a government or FBI database . . . gives everybody, you know, neck hair standing up.” Innocent Americans, he said, “should take comfort at least knowing that it is done under a great deal of investigative care, oversight, within the parameters of the law.”
He added: “That’s not going to satisfy a majority of people, but . . . I’ve had people say, you know, ‘Hey, I don’t care, I’ve done nothing to be concerned about. You can have me in your files and that’s that.’ Some people take that approach.”
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