(NaturalNews) During his tenure as head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover used the power of his office and his agency to intimidate and harass political dissenters, silence activists and to collect secret files on scores of political opponents and U.S. citizens in general. Hoover died in 1972 but it looks like he has been succeeded by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, head of the Justice Department, which includes the FBI.
In a secret decree granted without debate or approval from Congress, Holder recently granted the National Counterterrorism Center a wide range of new powers to keep dossiers and secret files on U.S. citizens, even if they aren't suspected of committing a crime, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The paper said that earlier this year, Holder granted the center the ability to copy entire government databases that held information on such intimate details like flight records, lists of casino employees, Americans hosting foreign-exchange students and other personal data for up to five years, even if there was never any suspicion that persons in those databases committed any crimes.
'Breathtaking in scope'
Previously, the law prohibited the center from storing the compilations of data on U.S. citizens unless they were suspected of being involved in terrorist-related activity or were somehow linked to an ongoing terrorism investigation.
But the new powers granted by Holder provide the center with the ability to not just collect and store large databases of information, but to sift through and analyze it for "suspicious" behavior or patterns that could uncover activity or trigger an investigation.
The Holder-approved changes also would let databases containing personal information on U.S. citizens be shared with foreign governments for their own analysis as well.
One former senior White House told the Journal - which broke the story - that the new changes Holder has granted are "breathtaking in scope." As is typical; however, those counterterrorism officials who are abusing the Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens defended their actions as prudent and necessary because, you know, there are rules about how the data can be used (just like there was a "rule" in the form of a constitutional amendment that prohibits exactly what these officials and Holder are doing).
"The guidelines provide rigorous oversight to protect the information that we have, for authorized and narrow purposes," Alexander Joel, Civil Liberties Protection Officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the paper in an interview.
Just like the Constitution provides rigorous oversight to protect citizens from this kind of abuse.
The NCTC maintains its stolen data in something called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database, known by its quaint, familiar little acronym - TIDE. The database contains more than 500,000 identities that are suspected of conducting terrorist activities or may have terrorist links.
Data collection is supposed to be unconstitutional, but...
Under the new permissions, which were issued in March, the center can now get a hold of just about any other government database that is "reasonably believed" to contain "terrorism information." That could include collections of financial forms submitted by citizens seeking federally backed loans and mortgages, military records or the records of anyone who sought mental or physical treatment at government-run medical facilities like the Veterans Administration.
It's worth noting that previous surveillance proposals like this were struck down during the Bush administration after they were widely condemned. In 2002, the Pentagon tried initiating something called the Total Information Awareness program but it was killed following public outcry - though obviously not in spirit.
Besides constitutional protections that are there to ensure Americans are "secure in their papers and effects," the Federal Privacy Act prohibits government agencies from sharing data for any reason other than the purpose for which it was initially collected, specifically to prevent the compilation of dossiers.
Agencies get around this restriction by posting a notice in the Federal Register - that almost nobody reads or tracks - providing "justification" for the data request.
The rule changes were sought largely because authorities were unable to catch Umar Farouk Abdulamutallab before he boarded a commercial airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 with explosives sewn into his underwear. Abdulamutallab was not on the FBI's terrorist watch list but the NCTC had obtained tips about him, but failed to search other government databases to connect dots that may have allowed federal agents to intercept him before he got on the Detroit-bound plane.
The center tried to fix that problem regarding future suspects, but legal obstacles cropped up, said the Journal, because the NCTC was only permitted to search federal databases looking for a specific name or passenger list.
"They couldn't look through the databases trolling for general 'patterns,'" said the paper.
The request to expand the center's powers led to a battle between the White House and the Department of Homeland Security. Mary Ellen Callahan, then-chief privacy officer at DHS, argued in favor of defending civil liberties, saying the new rules were a "sea change" and that from then on, every interaction citizens have with the government will be under the clouded question, is that person a terrorist?
Callahan lost her bid and eventually left her position. It's not known if her decision to leave was tied to the implementation of the new rules.