Saturday, March 10, 2007

A predictable abuse of power

The FBI has been rapped over the knuckles by the US Justice Department for misusing anti-terrorism powers to obtain records illegally. The abuses relate to the use of "National Security Letters", which allow the FBI to demand phone, business, ISP and even library records in secret and without judicial oversight. These administrative subpoenas are supposed to be used only in an emergency, but instead they have been used regularly and widely and simply for fishing expeditions, without adequate reporting, and in cases which do not meet even the lax standards required for their use. Which is exactly what you'd expect when there is no independent oversight. When organisations are trusted to watch themselves, power is inevitably abused - which is precisely why we require those organisations with power to enter our lives and invade our privacy to meet basic standards and make at least a tissue of a case to a judge. This was pointed out to Congress when they chose to expand the use of NSL's though the USA PATRIOT Act, but in the post-9/11 air of panic, they chose not to listen. Today's revelations are an entirely predictable consequence of that decision, and the lawmakers who ignored basic safeguards and allowed it to happen should be held accountable for it.