Federal agencies frustrated that they can’t use NSA’s spy tools too

posted at 8:01 pm on August 5, 2013 by Allahpundit

To clarify: They do use them occasionally, in cases related to terrorism or foreign intel, but the demand for the NSA’s surveillance services from other arms of the government apparently far exceeds the supply. If you missed this story on Saturday night, when it first went live, make amends now. Not only as a gloss on Ed’s post this morning about the DEA’s own practices in sharing intelligence but as a hint of where the debate over the surveillance state is headed in the less-distant-than-you-think future.

Agencies working to curb drug trafficking, cyberattacks, money laundering, counterfeiting and even copyright infringement complain that their attempts to exploit the security agency’s vast resources have often been turned down because their own investigations are not considered a high enough priority, current and former government officials say…

“The other agencies feel they should be bigger players,” said [former White House intelligence official Timothy] Edgar, who heard many of the disputes before leaving government this year to become a visiting fellow at Brown University. “They view the N.S.A. — incorrectly, I think — as this big pot of data that they could go get if they were just able to pry it out of them.”…

In fact, a change made in 2008 in the executive order governing intelligence was intended to make it easier for the security agency to share surveillance information with other agencies if it was considered “relevant” to their own investigations. It has often been left to the national intelligence director’s office to referee the frequent disputes over how and when the security agency’s spy tools can be used. The director’s office declined to comment for this article…

The security agency’s spy tools are attractive to other agencies for many reasons. Unlike traditional, narrowly tailored search warrants, those granted by the intelligence court often allow searches through records and data that are vast in scope. The standard of evidence needed to acquire them may be lower than in other courts, and the government may not be required to disclose for years, if ever, that someone was the focus of secret surveillance operations.

Money quote: “Sometimes, security agency and bureau officials accuse the smaller agencies of exaggerating links to national security threats in their own cases when pushing for access to the security agency’s surveillance capabilities.” The most amazing part is that the extent of intel-sharing appears to be within the discretion of the NSA itself. If agencies like the DEA feel stymied, it’s only because the people in charge of programs like PRISM have — so far — been more sensitive to Americans’ privacy concerns than some of their colleagues would be. There’s a starting point for Congress if/when it decides to engage with this subject more seriously. Whatever limits are placed on the NSA itself, how about stricter statutory boundaries to prevent the rest of the government from dipping its hands in the intel pot?

Or maybe I’m kidding myself. It occurred to me after first reading about PRISM that, as much as the public would fret about privacy, there’d also be public support (maybe not now but in due time, as we become acclimated to intrusive surveillance) for using the NSA’s powers to fight more traditional crime. An obvious example: Crimes against children. Why not add algorithms designed to detect child pornography to the NSA’s data-mining apparatus? Or why not add the names of missing kids, just in case their kidnappers happen to mention them in e-mails to a confidant? Once you make that move, why not add the names of victims of unsolved murders too? The feds already have DNA and fingerprint databases that they search to solve cold cases; eventually metadata will be added on the theory that they need “digital fingerprints” too. (One of the most insidious ways a surveillance regime expands is through “we already do X, so why not Y?” reasoning.) I don’t think the public’s there yet, and it probably won’t be for several years thanks to Snowden, but give it time.

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