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Pentagon love affair and the rise of the surveillance state

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  November 13, 2012 05:58 PM

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You know we've reached some sort of climax in the total surveillance state when the director of the CIA can’t keep his illicit sex life private.

Did you notice that the FBI was able to read the CIA director's email without a shred of evidence that a crime had been committed and without bothering to obtain a warrant from a court?

The sordid details--which are pouring out on an hourly basis--of CIA Director David Petraeus' affair with his biographer-turned-mistress Paula Broadwell shows how easy it is for the FBI and other government agencies to track and reveal intimate details about our lives, all without a warrant. This investigation started when Ms. Broadwell sent nasty (but hardly criminal) emails to Jill Kelley who, in turn, told a friend in the FBI about it, but not before exchanging hundreds or thousands of pages of "inappropriate" or "flirtatious" emails with U.S. General John Allen.

It's hard to look away as the tawdry tidbits emerge. Reports of the lengths to which Gen. Petraeus and Ms. Broadwell tried to avoid detection by sharing an email "drop box" make you wonder if they didn’t know, as the ACLU's Chris Sogohoian, explains, that such detection-avoiding techniques have been tried--and failed--by the likes of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, Richard Reid (the shoe bomber), the 2004 Madrid train bombers, terrorists in Germany, as well as some domestic "eco-terrorists."

Is it possible that the CIA director simply couldn't fathom how powerful and unchecked the U.S. surveillance apparatus has become?

It’s also hard to ignore the fact that the investigation may never have started if Ms. Kelley had not complained to a friend in the FBI, an agent who reportedly became "obsessed" with her--and subsequently used email to send Ms. Kelley shirtless photos of himself. But for this one obsessed FBI agent, the Pentagon Love investigation may have gone nowhere.

The real scandal, albeit less salacious, is that this kind of surveillance goes on all the time as a result of outdated U.S. privacy laws, which permit government officials to link our emails to our location and use that information to deduce with whom we are emailing, visiting, and--now we know--having affairs, all without a warrant or even nexus to criminal activity.

It happens all the time. As the Washington Post, in its 2010 three-part "Top Secret America" series, reported: "Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications."

According to Sogohoian, webmail providers like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft retain login records (typically for more than a year, if not longer) that reveal the particular IP addresses a consumer has logged in from. Although these records reveal sensitive information, including geo-location data associated with the target, U.S. law currently permits law enforcement agencies to obtain these records with a mere subpoena--no judge required.

The danger, of course, is that these same unchecked surveillance powers can be used by government agents to target their enemies without evidence of a crime. It's the same mentality that led J. Edgar Hoover to spy on the sexual habits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in an effort to silence and bring low the civil rights hero.

The irony of the nation's spy chief being brought down by an unchecked spying apparatus may delight momentarily. As Trevor Timm, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation tweeted: "Who knew the key to stopping the Surveillance State was to just wait until it got so big that it ate itself?"

It's time America passed comprehensive privacy legislation to keep pace with rapid changes in technology. If nothing else, the rise and fall of David Petraeus should at least give us more than tragicomic relief. What we really need is relief from the surveillance state.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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