As someone who has held two top secret security clearances, has done extensive research on global intelligence collection techniques and is a practicing attorney in the field of anti-money laundering, I feel the need to weigh in on the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens.
As a senior political appointee in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, serving at the U.S. Commerce Department, I had routine access to classified information. The current level of electronic spying was inconceivable in those days. Since the passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2002 — legislation that was not even read by most members of Congress before they voted for it — the federal government has exploited every legal loophole to expand its monitoring of ordinary citizens’ lives, using the “War on Terrorism” as an excuse.
Actually, such government encroachment on civil liberties has been public knowledge for years. On March 10, 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported on the NSA’s efforts to “reach more broadly into data about people’s communications, travel and finances in the U.S.” The Wall Street Journal article hinted at the “cluster of powerful intelligence-gathering programs,” most of which are super-secret, off-budget “black programs.” These include an FBI initiative to track telecommunications data once known as “Carnivore” (now called “the Digital Collection System”) and electronic monitoring of the world’s main international banking clearinghouse to track money movements.
As confirmed by Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) and others last week, the public is seeing only the tip of the NSA’s SIGINT (signals intelligence) iceberg. Under PRISM, the federal government is able to collect raw data from emails, telephone conversations, texts, videos, photos, VOIP conversations (e.g., Skype), electronic file transfers, social networking details and login details (yes, they can access your email accounts at any time). This applies to both Americans and foreign nationals. NSA computers are programmed to collect data from emails and phones containing certain keywords (for example, anything related to Cuba, regardless of whether the communication refers to a beach vacation or a violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act).
Contrary to the assertions of President Obama and other government officials, PRISM and similar highly classified programs are not used solely for anti-terrorism or anti-money laundering purposes. The federal government collects business and technical data, as well as political information. SIGINT data on global financial transactions is routinely provided to the IRS for use in tracking foreign bank accounts held by law-abiding U.S. nationals, or what the federal government refers to as “persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction” — which the Justice Department can define to include just about anyone in the world. Data on foreign bank accounts is increasingly being used for tax collection purposes, especially for implementing the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which requires individuals to report their financial accounts held offshore and foreign financial institutions to report to the IRS about their U.S. clients. As a result of FATCA, a growing number of foreign financial advisors and banks are refusing to take American clients.
The government’s electronic snooping has outraged Americans across the political spectrum. When Senator Rand Paul and the American Civil Liberties Union agree on an issue, and the New York Times publishes editorials similar to those in National Review, it is clear that the federal government has overstepped its constitutional bounds.
Something is very wrong in Washington, D.C. We haven’t quite reached the world imagined in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Big Brother — a.k.a. “Uncle Sam” — is definitely watching you. The federal government is becoming something very different from what the Founding Fathers envisioned.
Timothy Ashby is an international lawyer, businessman and writer. He served in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.