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NSA "Metadata" Collection: Did FCC Know?

From http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/prism-collection-documents/

Did FCC know about the recently revealed NSA collection of “metadata” including “pen register” information (and more, but not content) of every phone call in the USA?

Your blogger, a “card carrying” ACLU member, has no direct knowledge of this program.

Indeed, he has not dealt in any way with the intelligence community since before 9/11 and has not dealt with NSA in more than 25 years. However, based on observations of their modus operandi at those times it is fair to say that at the very least the FCC Chairman most likely knew about this collection program and that during the Bush Administration at least the FCC Chairman knew about the apparently illegal predecessor program that took place at that time.

FCC Rules (47 C.F.R. 0.181) provide for a “Defense Commissioner” who “directs the homeland security, national security and emergency preparedness, and defense activities of the Commission”.

Through much of the Commission’s history this was a commissioner other than the Chairman. In recent years, under both parties, the Chairman has assumed these duties which has likely had the impact of minimizing the number of commissioners who know what was happening in sensitive areas.

(However, one stimulus for the de facto merger of the Defense Commissioner position with the Chairman’s Office was the attempt of Comm. Mimi Weyforth Dawson to use the position in cooperation with her husband, a key Senate staffer in the defense area, to set herself up to be the next FCC chairman in a Republican factional fight during the Reagan Administration.)

So what is the real problem here with the NSA program? It was probably legal under the Patriot Act. The key congressional intelligence committees apparently know about it. Did Congress as whole understand that this was allowed under the Patriot Act? Are some provisions of the Patriot Act really a threat to our democracy?

Your blogger is not as concerned about the “vacuum cleaner” collection of massive amounts of information as much as the safeguards protecting it from inappropriate use. Several agencies of the federal government have a lot of private information on you beside NSA: think Passport Office, IRS. Both of these have had scandals in recent memory.

The Passport Office has had recurring problems with voyeuristic staffers who were using their access to look up Hollywood personalities and their personal information. After multiple scandals this resulted in new oversight of employee access and the topic has been quiet in the US for several years although a quick Google search shows comparable problems in other countries.

The current IRS scandal shows the potential of misuse of sensitive information for political gain, although it probably wasn’t the real issue in the Tea Party case. J. Edgar Hoover was a master at misusing private information. Note that the IRS problem was discovered by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), an independent office created in 1998

to provide independent oversight of IRS activities. TIGTA promotes the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness in the administration of the internal revenue laws. It is also committed to the prevention and detection of fraud, waste, and abuse within the IRS and related entities.

While the Intelligence Community says that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court overseas the data collection and use, does it really the the resources to do so? The Wikileaks/Bradley Manning case shows that the classified community has not always done a good job detecting when someone overreached their authorized access and “need to know”.

There is an Intelligence Community Inspector General, but does he have a clear charter and adequate resources to protect truly personal information from either voyeuristic or politically motivated snooping? It is interesting that Gen. Patraeus used e-mail for his extramarital affair even though he knew about these programs. Maybe he had more faith in their discretion than I have.

Perhaps we need an independent TIGTA-like office with adequate staffing to have independent oversight to assure that information collected under sensitive intelligence programs is only used for sensitive intelligence programs and not to create a police state.

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