As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama announced: “I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. That is not who we are.”
Obama ran for the US presidency in 2007 promising to brush back sweeping surveillance his predecessor introduced in the name of battling terrorism – the Patriot Act, which has generated so much controversy.
That suggested he would restore to Americans the liberties they cherish. The Patriot Act, said one of its critics, “gives the FBI a ‘blank check’ to violate the communications privacy of countless innocent Americans.”
But Obama expanded data-mining initiatives.
British newspaper The Guardian broke the story of a secret warrant for phone records from the company Verizon – with dates of use, duration, places and numbers dialled internationally and nationally.
John Miller, former Deputy Director of National Intelligence, appeared to defend the practice, raising the spectre of doubt: “If you’re watching a thousand suspected terrorist numbers in Pakistan and Afghanistan and you see that this number is in contact with 50 other numbers, but three of them are in the United States, does that mean that a terrorist there has a cousin in Chicago? Or does that mean that there’s a cell in the United States?”
The authorities say that the content of the communications is not recorded; that would be illegal. But national intelligence has confirmed that since 2007 the government has searched nine leading Internet companies’ servers for emails, videos, photographs and other documents – for potentially terrorism-linked data – the PRISM programme – but that it can’t intentionally target people in the US.
That leaves the privacy of anyone not in the US fair game for scrutiny – rights defenders say espionage – in the name of US security.
The Boston bombers plotted their actions within the country but they slipped the net.