For over a year, the American Congress has debated a new law that was meant to restrict the power of the NSA [National Security Agency]. The NSA has been gathering information about U.S. citizens for years. But only now, Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced that the Senate has accepted the final version of the “U.S. Freedom Act.”
Thus, one might venture to say that Edward Snowden, a modest 31-year-old from North Carolina, has defeated the omnipotent NSA. Although changes introduced by the Senate restrict the liberal character of a “Freedom Act,” it still deprives the NSA and federal government offices of many actions when it comes to wiretaps and eavesdropping on people.
The Spy Mangle
The final version of this new law, despite being a major step forward in fight for civil liberties, has been strongly criticized. What changes will it bring? First of all, its task is to prevent spy agencies from gathering information about any American citizens who are not under police observation, or to whom there was no warrant issued by a court. But in this case, the Senate watered down the original version, previously accepted by the House of Representatives, that was trying to drastically take away the rights of governmental institutions to preventively spy on both politicians and regular citizens.
The final version of a new law that will soon be voted on imposes greater transparency on federal government institutions and requires detailed reporting from intelligence and counterintelligence on almost all their operational actions, but at the same time leaves many matters unclear. It particularly concerns the actions of the CIA and its numerous military counterparts. It needs to be remembered that, contrary to common belief, the CIA is not the only (or the most important) intelligence agency in the United States. In the U.S., there are no less than 17 secret service agencies that operate completely independently.
In white-collar jargon they are called the elements of a federal government. Almost every federal executive department has its own intelligence agency, and each one of them is a powerful, well-organized and equipped organization that serves various areas of development of American economy and national security. What distinguishes the CIA from them is its autonomy from government. The CIA, unlike the other 16 agencies, is, in many fields, autonomous even from the U.S. president.
But the president of The United States does not need to worry about the autonomy of the CIA. The other 16 agencies that report to him, belonging to five of the most important departments, make him the most powerful man in the world. The Department of Defense itself supervises as many as eight intelligence and counterintelligence services: the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency); the already-mentioned NSA; the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO); the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA); the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency (AFISRA); the Military Intelligence Corps(MI); Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA); and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI).
So many intelligence formations working independently can be explained by the power and the international role of the United States. However, the surprising thing is that there are similar organizations run by other departments. For example, the Department of Energy has its Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence (OICI), and the Department of State uses information delivered by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). The INR budget is not very high ($59 million) and it hires only 313 workers, but they analyze the situation in a given region, divided into continental sections, daily.
However, it is not the INR or CIA that the common citizens or businessmen are afraid of, but the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI). This “company” causes fear among business. TFI marshals have unusually broad authority, so broad that they easily fall into jurisdictional conflict with the CIA, FBI, or NSA. Although the TFI is supervised by the Department of Treasury, it has among its authority, for example, special permission to fight financial crimes both within the U.S. and abroad, fight with rogue nations and perpetrators of international terrorism — including those who proliferate weapons of mass destruction —and the ability to fight with money launderers, drug kingpins, serial killers and other national security threats. To sum up: The TFI deals with everything that the 16 other agencies deal with, too.
This multiplying of entities performing the same tasks, but working completely independently or even in secret from each other, disrupts the consistency of operational actions.
Millions of Americans are wondering: What is the sense of repeating actions against drug kingpins by the TFI if it is already the task performed by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), working under the Department of Justice? Moreover, another spy organization, the Office of National Security Intelligence (ONSI), is a part of the DEA itself.
Has Anybody Heard about the NGA?
Both Hollywood movies and popular spy novels have made us accustomed to the fact that all U.S. intelligence actions need to be linked with CIA activity. But other agencies also have fabulous technical and organizational capabilities. For example, the not very well known National Geospatial Intelligence Agency or NGA (formerly NIMA, National Imagery and Mapping Agency) has 16,000 workers and an ultramodern office space of 210,000 square meters. Its annual budget is no less than $5 billion. It is the NGA that was responsible for preparing Operation Neptune Spear (the kidnapping and liquidation of Osama bin Laden), although general opinion is that the operation was planned by the CIA.
So far, all these agencies have acted in an uncoordinated way, completely independently from each other. Sometimes they have fought one another, thinking they have discovered the spy actions of foreign countries. The new law dictates mutual cooperation and coordination of actions that must be proven in regular, obligatory reports submitted to both chambers of Congress. At the same time, Congress is banning any spy activities against U.S. allies unless a strong premise for it exists, such as a threat to U.S. national security.
Theoretically this means that, for example, gathering “useless” information about Americans living abroad (so far a normal practice for the above-mentioned organizations) will no longer be possible. The Senate also requires introducing technologies which honest companies that protect their customers’ data can protect themselves from. It is a concession to corporations, mainly from the IT sector, who demanded greater transparency in government-business relations.
Senator Leahy claims that a broad representation of people from technical environments and members of civil rights movements has been working on the project. “If we can enact this bill, get it signed into law, it would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the U.S. Patriot Act,” Leahy said on the Senate floor.
“It is an historic opportunity,” he added. “We would be derelict in our duty to this country if we passed up that opportunity.”
A Worthless Project
Although Senator Leahy has already thanked the White House and the corporations for their involvement and cooperation in work on the new bill, many experts say that President Obama should veto the Freedom Act. It is pushed mostly by corporations from Silicon Valley. In their opinion, the previous version of the bill was much better, and this project was watered down both by the Senate and the government. The proposed new law still does not regulate wiretapping, gathering the private data of citizens, examining their bank accounts, financial operations, online shopping, sexual preferences, downloading of copyrighted files, or medical data gathered by the secret services.
Kevin Bankston, the director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, the organization monitoring developments related to the U.S. Freedom Act, stated: “We cannot in good conscience support this weakened version of the bill, where key reforms — especially those intended to end bulk collection and increase transparency — have been substantially watered down.”
It is unofficially known that it was the determined reaction of IT branch environments that made Leahy start secret negotiations with the White House and representatives of all intelligence agencies to restore the previous version of the bill, created by the more liberal House of Representatives.
So if the bill, in its final version, restricts the power of such giants as the NSA, can it be considered Edward Snowden’s victory, as it was him who started the discussion on investigation of American citizens? Will 17 powerful American intelligence and counterintelligence agencies really obey the new law and give away their prerogatives? It is said that those agencies are a state within a state. Will the secret service organizations that are able to change governments and pull down the political systems all over the world agree to return to the rules that used to forbid them to get close to somebody’s mailbox?
Many experts, commentators and politicians, as well as common citizens, think that the “U.S. Freedom Act” is only a weak attempt to blur the picture of Orwellian reality into which the formerly free United States of America is beginning to sink.