The revelations detailing the extent of the National Security Agency’s espionage capabilities raises the specter that their powers could be misused to target Americans who have nothing to do with terrorism.
In fact, allegations of such misconduct already exist. Here are two examples where anti-terrorism powers granted to law enforcement were allegedly used to target American citizens not engaged in terrorism.
1.) National Security Agency staffers allegedly listened to personal calls of Americans abroad
Two former intercept officers who worked at the NSA facility in Fort Gordon, Georgia told ABC News’s Brian Ross in 2008 that they and their colleagues listened in on phone calls home of hundreds of Americans living and working abroad.
“These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept, and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones,” Adrienne Kinne, one of the whistle-blowers and a former Army Reserves Arab linguist, told ABC News.
The calls, according to Kinne, were “personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism.”
Kinne made the allegations after becoming a rabid anti-Iraq war activist, serving on the board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Navy Arab linguist David Murfee Faulk told ABC News a similar story. He said that he and his colleagues listened in on the calls of American officers living in the Green Zone in Baghdad.
Faulk described the personal nature of many of the calls, and how he and his colleagues would encourage each other to listen into a call where “there’s good phone sex” or “some colonel making pillow talk.”
Kinne said when concerns were raised with her superiors about the nature of the calls they were listening in on, she was told “your job is not to question.”
In 2008, the NSA told The New York Times, “Some of these allegations have been investigated and found to be unsubstantiated; others are in the investigation process.”
2.) Eliot Spitzer ensnared through the help of the Patriot Act
The Patriot Act was passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks under the pretext that American law enforcement agencies needed increased powers in order catch terrorists and prevent future carnage on American soil. But the powers granted in the Patriot Act aided law enforcement officials in uncovering former New York Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s dalliances with high-class prostitutes, which isn’t exactly a terrorism-related offense. Mark Hosenball explained how in Newsweek magazine in 2008:
The Patriot Act gave the FBI new powers to snoop on suspected terrorists. In the fine print were provisions that gave the Treasury Department authority to demand more information from banks about their customers’ financial transactions. Congress wanted to help the feds identify terrorist money launderers. But Treasury went further. It issued stringent new regulations that required banks themselves to look for unusual transactions (such as odd patterns of cash withdrawals or wire transfers) and submit SARs — Suspicious Activity Reports — to the government. Facing potentially stiff penalties if they didn’t comply, banks and other financial institutions installed sophisticated software to detect anomalies among millions of daily transactions. They began ranking the risk levels of their customers — on a scale of zero to 100 — based on complex formulas that included the credit rating, assets and profession of the account holder. …
The new scrutiny resulted in an explosion of SARs, from 204,915 in 2001 to 1.23 million last year . The data, stored in an IRS computer in Detroit, are accessible by law-enforcement agencies nationwide. “Terrorism has virtually nothing to do with it,” says Peter Djinis, a former top Treasury lawyer. “The vast majority of SARs filed today involve garden-variety forms of white-collar crime.” Federal prosecutors around the country routinely scour the SARs for potential leads.
Spitzer’s transactions were tagged, which ultimately led to suspicions he was accepting bribes, according to ABC News.
“We had no interest at all in the prostitution ring until the thing with Spitzer led us to learn about it,” a Department of Justice official told ABC News.
“[T]he governor called attention to himself by asking the bank to transfer money in someone else’s name,” Hosenball concluded in Newsweek.”The SAR was not itself evidence that Spitzer had committed a crime. But it made the feds curious enough to follow the money.”