No Comment — June 18, 2009, 1:33 pm

Operation Pinwale

Candidates Obama and Biden were quick to castigate the Bush Administration’s love for warrantless surveillance of American citizens in the alleged interests of national security. In fact, they were quick to use the label that actually applies to this conduct: “illegal.” But in office, their attitudes seem curiously transformed. Eric Holder, at an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, turned semantic summersaults to avoid calling the intrusive practices unlawful. And his Justice Department seems to have adopted a curiously lax attitude towards enforcement of the law limiting government surveillance. In fact, their conduct seems remarkably similar to that of the Bush team.

These facts were highlighted yesterday in a strong article by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times.

Since April, when it was disclosed that intercepts of some private communications of Americans went beyond legal limits in late 2008 and early 2009, several Congressional committees have been investigating. Those inquiries have led to concerns in Congress about the agency’s ability to collect and read domestic e-mail messages of Americans on a widespread basis, officials said. Supporting that conclusion is the account of a former N.S.A. analyst who, in a series of interviews, described being trained in 2005 for a program in which the agency routinely examined large volumes of Americans’ e-mail messages without court warrants. Two intelligence officials confirmed that the program was still in operation….

He said he and other analysts were trained to use a secret database, code-named Pinwale, in 2005 that archived foreign and domestic e-mail messages. He said Pinwale allowed N.S.A. analysts to read large volumes of e-mail messages to and from Americans as long as they fell within certain limits — no more than 30 percent of any database search, he recalled being told — and Americans were not explicitly singled out in the searches. The former analyst added that his instructors had warned against committing any abuses, telling his class that another analyst had been investigated because he had improperly accessed the personal e-mail of former President Bill Clinton. Other intelligence officials confirmed the existence of the Pinwale e-mail database, but declined to provide further details.

The NSA insists that this is all innocent error. That excuse is getting very tired and increasingly unbelievable. At this point the abuses are so wide sweeping and so systematic that it’s hard not to conclude that they have official approval if not encouragement. We wouldn’t have these problems if we had effective Congressional oversight. For eight years that has been lacking. On the Senate side, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has promised that her committee will start taking its mandate seriously. But when confronted with the Risen-Lichtblau story yesterday, Feinstein insisted that as far as she knew, the NSA was not violating the rules on e-mail surveillance. Feinstein’s idea of oversight appears to rest on accepting the claims of senior NSA functionaries. But that is the same negligent-to-complicit approach to oversight taken by her predecessor, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kans.).

This points to another problem. If the NSA is engaged in the sort of conduct that Risen and Lichtblau describe, and it’s doing this in conformity with law, then something’s terribly wrong with the law. Every time it was caught engaged in illegalities, the NSA demanded that the law be changed to legalize its invasions of the privacy of American citizens. It consistently got 90% of what it asked for, and continued to act as if it had gotten everything. The Times editorializes on this problem as well:

The 2008 expansion of FISA is a deeply flawed law. Congress needs to repeal it and re-examine, carefully this time, what powers the government really needs to eavesdrop on Americans and what limits and safeguards need to be placed on those powers.

The 2008 FISA bill went too far, and it’s now high time to start restoring civil liberties. It’s also time to insist that Congress begin at long last to provide meaningful oversight.

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