The Wall Street Journal today published (alternate link) an in-depth review of a new, relatively unknown program run by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Although we have been warning about the dangers of the program for months, and I testified before Congress about the issue in July, the Journal’s story conveys how controversial the program was even inside the government. It also describes the broad scope of new authority the government is granting itself.
As the Journal reports, under new guidelines issued by the Attorney General back in March,
The rules now allow the little-known National Counterterrorism Center to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them. That is a departure from past practice, which barred the agency from storing information about ordinary Americans unless a person was a terror suspect or related to an investigation.
Now, NCTC can copy entire government databases—flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited.
The changes also allow databases of U.S. civilian information to be given to foreign governments for analysis of their own. In effect, U.S. and foreign governments would be using the information to look for clues that people might commit future crimes.
The program is striking in so many ways. Innocent people can be investigated and their data kept for years. It can be shared with foreign governments. All of this in service of not just terrorism investigations but also investigations of future crimes. In effect, the U.S. government is using information it gathers for its ordinary business to turn its own citizens into the subjects of terrorism investigations.
Meanwhile, all of this is supposed to be against the law. The Privacy Act of 1974 says that information collected by the federal government for one purpose is not supposed to be used for another. However, agencies are attempting to circumvent these rules by publishing boilerplate notices in the Federal Register. Sadly, that practice has become far too common.
Government officials who have a firsthand look at how the program works are stunned by it:
“It’s breathtaking” in its scope, said a former senior administration official familiar with the White House debate.
And from Mary Ellen Callahan, then the Chief Privacy Officer at the Department of Homeland Security:
the rules would constitute a “sea change” because, whenever citizens interact with the government, the first question asked will be, are they a terrorist?
Worse, all of this happened in secret, approved by National Security Advisor John Brennan and signed off on by Attorney General Eric Holder. No public debate or comment and suddenly, every citizen can be put under the terrorism microscope.
Ironically, all of these changes to the rules came in response to an attempted attack that had nothing to do with information collection or a U.S. citizen. The government cites the attempted 2009 Christmas bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as the impetus for the changes. However, as the Journal story makes clear, Abdulmutallab wasn’t a U.S. citizen, and collecting information on him wasn’t a problem. Instead, his own father had identified him to the U.S. government as a potential terrorist. In short, an attack by a known foreign terror suspect was used to justify changes to rules about collecting information on U.S. citizens.
Finally, credit must be given to those who fought the program. It’s clear that DHS, especially the Privacy Officer, Mary Ellen Callahan, and the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties pushed back hard against this. Nancy Libin, the chief privacy officer at the Department of Justice, also expressed serious reservations and fought an internal battle against the changes. It’s probably not a surprise that none of them are still in government.
If you want to learn more here is a simple guide to the main changes created by the 2012 NCTC guidelines. And here are the Freedom of Information Act documents that we have gathered on NCTC—we will post more as we receive additional records.
NEW YORK – In a historic ruling, the European Court of Human Rights today condemned Macedonia’s illegal transfer of Khaled El-Masri into CIA custody and found that his abusive treatment at Macedonia’s airport by the U.S. rendition team “amounted to torture.” The court also found that his abduction and detention – including the time he was in U.S. custody – constituted “enforced disappearance” under international law.
“Today’s landmark decision is a stark reminder of America’s utter failure to hold its own officials accountable for serious violations of both U.S. and international law. Continued lack of accountability is turning the United States into an outlier among its European allies, which is an appalling outcome for a nation that prides itself as a global leader on the rule of law and human rights,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program. “Today’s ruling makes it harder for the United States to continue burying its head in the sand and ignoring domestic and global calls for full accountability for torture. This remarkable decision will no doubt put greater pressure on European nations to fully account for their complicity in cooperating with the illegal CIA ‘extraordinary rendition’ program, and to hold responsible those who violated the human rights of El-Masri and those like him.”
El-Masri is a German citizen who in 2003 was mistaken for another person and abducted by Macedonian authorities at a border crossing and held incommunicado for 23 days. He was then handed over to CIA operatives who put him on a secret flight to a “black site” in Afghanistan where he was secretly held, tortured and abused for about four months.
The ACLU currently represents El-Masri in a case against the U.S. now being considered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and also represented him in a lawsuit in U.S. federal court, which was dismissed. His case before the ECHR was brought by the Open Society Justice Initiative.
In a unanimous decision awarding El-Masri 60,000 Euros, the European court said that the court “underlines the great importance of the present case not only for the applicant and his family, but also for other victims of similar crimes and the general public, who had the right to know what had happened… The concept of ‘State secrets’ has often been invoked to obstruct the search for the truth. State secret privilege was also asserted by the US government in the applicant’s case before the US courts.”
The court’s ruling is available at:
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- CIA ‘tortured and sodomised’ terror suspect, European court rules (guardian.co.uk)
Palestinian youth Mohammad Ziad Awwad Salayme was shot dead on his 17th birthday in Hebron. Live ammunition was fired injuring another man and several journalists had to be hospitalised after being beaten on the street. Clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli Occupation forces erupted throughout the city and surrounding areas.
At around 7:30 pm on Wednesday 12 December 2012 a soldier of the Israeli army shot dead Mohammad Salayme, killing him with two bullets to the body and head in the Salayme neigbourhood of Hebron near to the Ibrahimi mosque. Mohammad had spent the day in school and was on his way to buy some cake for him and his family to celebrate his birthday, when suddenly his life was cut short. Another Palestinian man was shot with live ammunition and injured, he was taken to a hospital in the city. The Israeli military claimed Mohammad Salayme was carrying a fake gun, therefore shot him. Mohammad’s father who rushed to administer first aid to his son said he saw no fake gun on him. Sound bombs, tear gas and rubber bullets were fired at Palestinians who tried to help the dying teenager.
The Israeli military closed off all the streets around the area where Mohammed was killed to prevent any journalists from reaching the incident. A car carrying four journalists was hit with several rounds of live ammunition and the journalists were stopped and forced from their car. The journalists, two from Youth Against Settlements, one from Reuters and one from Palmedia were forced to strip to their underwear in the cold evening air. The soldiers took their cameras and physically beat up the journalists resulting in them needing hospital treatment. A filmmaker who works for the Israeli peace group Btselem who lives close to the shooting was surrounded by 12 soldiers, beaten up and arrested. Officers from the District Coordination Office For Military Affairs informed local activists the cameras would be returned to them tomorrow after being checked for evidence.
The Israeli military flooded the city with an enormous amount of soldiers who attempted to clear the streets in a very aggressive manner, throwing sound bombs into groups of remonstrating Palestinians, shooting tear gas and rubber coated steel bullets. This behaviour only antagonised the residents of Hebron turning the tense situation into outright confrontation as clashes erupted throughout the city. The areas of Salayme, Bab Al-Zawiya, Qtoun and Dar Al Binzaid all echoed to the sound of live ammunition, concussion grenades, tear gas and rubber coated steel bullets. Clashes were reported in the nearby city of Yatta and in Dura.
Tensions in Hebron are rising as the Israeli occupation forces are using increased levels of violence in the city ever since the recent Israeli assualt on Gaza. Hamdi Alfalah was killed on November 20th and many people have been injured. Hebron will see another funeral on Thursday 13th of December.
KHARTOUM – The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Sudan blasted the U.S. administration saying it is relying on tactics rather than its strategic interests in its handling of Sudan and is interfering in its affairs under the pretext of improving bilateral ties.
The head of the NCP external relations sector Ibrahim Ghandour said that his country is keen on establishing normal relations with the U.S. based on mutual respect and non-interference in its internal affairs.
Ghandour stressed that Sudan accepted U.S. role as a mediator due to its influence and clout in the world but is not desperate to normalize ties under Washington’s terms.
The NCP official was responding to statements this week by outgoing U.S. special envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman in which he stressed that Washington would not normalize ties with Khartoum without resolutions to conflicts in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan.
Lyman proposed a roadmap to normalize bilateral ties including allowing humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains, settlement of the conflict in the three areas and to resolve the outstanding issues with South Sudan.
But Ghandour said that Sudan is more keen than the U.S. on finding solutions to these problems adding that it is in Washington’s best interest to forge good ties with it.
“We hope that the U.S. realizes that Sudan led by the federal Government will continue, through its geographical position with political and economic abilities and its influence in the region, as a state which is very important to be for the U.S. administration to have relations with” he said.
In October 1997, the US imposed comprehensive economic, trade and financial sanctions against Sudan in response to its alleged connection to terror networks and human rights abuses. Further sanctions, particularly on weapons, have been imposed since the 2003 outbreak of violence in the western Darfur region.
Washington promised Khartoum last year that should the South Sudan referendum go peacefully it would quickly remove the East African nation from the list of states that sponsor terrorism as early as July 2011.
The US has yet to de-list Sudan from the terrorism designation, a decision which appears to be in light of the new conflicts that have erupted last year in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.