Civil Liberties

NSA and FBI: Bosom Buddies in Creepiness



A while ago I wrote about an ACLU report that the NSA and FBI work hand-in-hand when it comes to domestic surveillance. The civil liberties organization reported that the NSA relies on the Bureau for much of the authority for its snooping within the country's virtual borders. Now, declassified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders make it clear that it's a two-way street. The documents illustrate how the FBI wields its authority on behalf of the NSA, and that it receives lots of information in return.

Says a 2006 order:

A verified application having been made by the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for an order pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978…requiring the production to the National Security Agency (NSA) of the tangible things described below….

The tangible things to be produced are all call-detail records or "telephony meta data"…

The order goes on to specify continued production of the data on an "ongoing daily basis."

It's a partnership made in privacy hell, with the spy agency originally established to snoop on foreign governments essentially borrowing the jurisdictional authority of the domestic law-enforcement agency.

And what does the FBI get for its efforts? "The Court understands that the NSA expects that it will continue to provide on average approximately three telephone numbers per day to the FBI," reads a footnote in a 2007 order. That's an annotation to an assurance that:

With respect to any information the FBI receives as a result of this Order (information that is passed or "tipped" to it by the NSA), the FBI shall follow minimization procedures set forth in The Attorney General's Guidelines for FBI National Security Investigations and Foreign Intelligence Collection.

So the FBI is supposed to control the intrusiveness of data collection it commissions the NSA to perform on its behalf in an arrangement that defies the jurisdictional boundaries established to keep spies focused outwards and away from the law-enforcement agencies that interact with the American people. Got it.

On the plus side, federal officials seem to play well together. That's nice.

More seriously, this illustrates the artificial and permeable nature of the firewalls supposedly established between government agencies to keep the use of certain powers within presumably appropriate limits, and to keep agencies from sharing information they have no business sharing. Yes, there are institutional turf battles and power struggles, but at the end of the day, it's all the government. And paper limitations are just obstacles to be worked around, redefined, or ignored.