WHOLESALE SURVEILLANCE….Former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges explains how the new FISA legislation will handcuff him and his colleagues:
This law will cripple the work of those of us who as reporters communicate regularly with people overseas, especially those in the Middle East. It will intimidate dissidents, human rights activists and courageous officials who seek to expose the lies of our government or governments allied with ours.
….The reach of such surveillance has already hampered my work. I was once told about a showdown between a U.S. warship and the Iranian navy that had the potential to escalate into a military conflict. I contacted someone who was on the ship at the time of the alleged incident and who reportedly had photos. His first question was whether my phone and e-mails were being monitored.
What could I say? How could I know? I offered to travel to see him but, frightened of retribution, he refused. I do not know if the man’s story is true. I only know that the fear of surveillance made it impossible for me to determine its veracity.
There are (at least) two issues here. First, under the old law there were ways for reporters to be relatively sure that they could evade surveillance. Use random pay phones, anonymous email accounts, etc. After all, the government can’t listen to every conversation, can they? Well, now they can, and reporters’ sources know it. It’s going to be a lot harder to convince them that it’s safe to talk.
Second, reporters who cover terrorism and the Middle East are pretty obvious targets for NSA surveillance since they talk to lots of bad guys. This surveillance is illegal, of course, and under the old FISA law it was hard to get around this because the FISA court had to issue a warrant if NSA wanted to tap the phone of an American citizen. But now? They don’t need to directly tap reporters’ phones. They’re listening to every piece of traffic that goes through American switches and NSA computer software is picking out everything that seems interesting — and no matter what they say, doesn’t it seem likely that their algorithms are going to be tweaked to (accidentally! unintentionally!) pick up an awful lot of reporter chatter? It’ll eventually be “minimized,” but algorithms are infinitely malleable, they’re hard for laymen to understand, and they can almost certainly be changed to accomplish the same thing if a judge happens to order modifications. What’s more, it hardly matters: the new law allows NSA to hold on to all those minimized conversations forever even if a judge eventually decides the surveillance was illegal.
Welcome to the wholesale surveillance state. Enjoy it.