The Obama administration has fought tooth and nail to keep the details of its surveillance activities hidden from the public. For years it has insisted that its snooping on Americans’ phone and email communications fell perfectly within the law (that is, the extremely broad and invasive FISA Amendments Act, which authorizes warrantless surveillance of Americans’ international communications, checked only by a secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that doesn’t make it’s activities and procedures available to the public.) Despite repeated demands by civil liberties groups, the administration refused to disclose how many times they gathered intelligence about American citizens.
But now, the ACLU, “after months of litigation,” has been provided with some details. And it doesn’t look good:
Justice Department documents released today by the ACLU reveal that federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications, and doing so without warrants, sufficient oversight, or meaningful accountability.
The documents, handed over by the government only after months of litigation, are the attorney general’s 2010 and 2011 reports on the use of “pen register” and “trap and trace” surveillance powers. The reports show a dramatic increase in the use of these surveillance tools, which are used to gather information about telephone, email, and other Internet communications. The revelations underscore the importance of regulating and overseeing the government’s surveillance power. (Our originalFreedom of Information Act request and our legal complaint are online.)
Pen register and trap and trace devices are powerfully invasive surveillance tools that were, twenty years ago, physical devices that attached to telephone lines in order to covertly record the incoming and outgoing numbers dialed. Today, no special equipment is required to record this information, as interception capabilities are built into phone companies’ call-routing hardware.
This news will be completely ignored by the network news outlets, so voters will by and large know nothing about it. It will not inform people’s voting decisions. But even if it did, the question again arises, as it was so elegantly put by The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf earlier this week, how much “evil” are lesser evil Obama voters willing to accept?