The Surveillance State Grows Another Tentacle

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

After the attempted Christmas Day bombing of 2009, a Senate investigation concluded that the National Counterterrorism Center had received information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be underwear bomber, but had failed to query other government agencies about him. This allowed him to board his flight to the U.S. and nearly detonate his bomb. President Obama responded by ordering all agencies to send their leads to NCTC, which was ordered to “pursue thoroughly and exhaustively terrorism threat threads.”

Unfortunately, NCTC didn’t have the resources to “exhaustively” pursue the torrent of leads it began receiving. So it fell behind. Late last year, after Homeland Security had given NCTC a database on condition that it purge the names of all innocent persons within 30 days, things came to a head. Homeland Security eventually revoked NCTC’s access to the data and NCTC decided it needed to operate under different rules. In particular, it wanted unlimited access to all government agency information for as long as it needed it, including both suspects and non-suspects alike. In March, after discussion at the White House, Eric Holder granted their request.

A terrific Wall Street Journal story explains what happened next:

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.

….”It’s breathtaking” in its scope, said a former senior administration official familiar with the White House debate….Under the new rules, [NCTC] can obtain almost any database the government collects that it says is “reasonably believed” to contain “terrorism information.” The list could potentially include almost any government database, from financial forms submitted by people seeking federally backed mortgages to the health records of people who sought treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals.

We’ve been through this before, of course, but public outcry put an end to Total Information Awareness, the Bush-era data-mining program designed to trawl through every byte of data that anyone anywhere had ever collected about you. This time, though, there’s been no outcry. Why? Because, according to the Journal, “For one thing, the debate happened behind closed doors.”

That’s one way to keep people from complaining, though it turns out that whenever NCTC wants access to a new database, the target of the request will probably post a notice in the Federal Register. At that point, you are allowed to submit comments if you like. However, the Journal dryly notes, nobody is required to make changes based on the comments.

Welcome to the new national security state. Be sure to read the entire story.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend