Archive for the ‘Surveillance State’ Category

What’s it like to be a TSA checkpoint “officer”?

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

For more than a year, an anonymous blog called Taking Sense Away has been reporting on what it’s like to work at a TSA checkpoint as a “Transportation Screening Officer”.

Now that he is no longer a TSA employee, the author of the blog has revealed himself in an article in Politico (“Dear America, I Saw You Naked”) as Jason E. Harrington, a graduate student (currently working on a novel based on his time at the TSA) who worked for the TSA at O’Hare Airport in Chicago from 2007 until May 2013.

Thank you, Mr. Harrington.  The TSA needs more whistleblowers, leakers, and honest story-tellers.

Sadly, there’s nothing really surprising in the Politico article, and we’ve been following the blog since its launch. We already knew this stuff was happening behind the scenes, such as TSA staff who know that what they are doing is security theater, and enjoy that theater by necking in the back room that’s deliberately designed to enable them to watch the naked images of passengers in private, assured that nobody can see them or catch them on camera while they are fooling around or laughing as passengers’ body-scans.

What we have now that’s different is someone with years of inside experience who who is prepared to put his name and stake his reputation on this testimony (and to provide a publication outlet for other TSA whistleblowers).  Read it all and weep, and keep following for more revelations.

9th Circuit overturns law making hotel guest registry an “open book” for police

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Airlines and other common carriers aren’t the only travel companies that are sometimes required by governments to keep logs of their customers’ activities and make those records available to police.

Hotels, in particular, are often required or expected to spy on their customers for the (secret) police.

Sometimes, as in many European countries, this is mandated by national law. In the US, these requirements are more often encountered in state, county, and municipal codes.

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, after rehearing en banc, recently overturned one such local ordinance as being, on its face, a violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.

The ruling in Patel v. City of Los Angeles is indicative of what sorts of limits courts currently are, and aren’t, willing to put on these outsourced systems of government surveillance, and who has standing to challenge these requirements.

The case concerned Section 41.49 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code, “Hotel Registers and Room Rentals”, which requires that (1) any guest arriving without a reservation or paying for a room in cash must present a government issued identification document, (2) information about each guest including the details of the guest’s ID document and the license number of any vehicle parked on hotel premises by the guest must be recorded by the hotel in a written log book, card file, or electronic database, and (3) this guest register must be kept on the hotel premises, at or near the guest reception or check-in area, and “made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection” at any time.

It’s only that last detail of the law — the requirement that the guest register be “made available” to any police officer without warrant, without the consent of the hotelier or the guest, without any requirement for suspicion or probable cause, and without any possibility of judicial review of police demands for the guest register — that was overturned by the 9th Circuit.  The ID requirement in the L.A. ordinance was not challenged in this case.

The en banc majority in Patel v. City of Los Angeles starts by taking for granted that information provided by a guest in order to satisfy government conditions on the rental of a place to sleep is being provided “voluntarily”:

To be sure, the guests lack any privacy interest of their own in the hotel’s records. United States v. Cormier, 220 F.3d 1103, 1108 (9th Cir. 2000); see United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435, 440 (1976). But that is because the records belong to the hotel, not the guest, and the records contain information that the guests have voluntarily disclosed to the hotel.

Whatever validity this doctrine might have with respect to information provided “voluntarily” to a third party, a disclosure is scarcely “voluntary” when, as in this case, (a) it is required by law as a condition of availing oneself of the services of a place of public accommodation, and (b) the alternative to disclosure is sleeping in the street or on the sidewalk.  (Under another provision of the same LA Municipal Code, it’s illegal to sit, lie, or sleep in the street or on the sidewalk In the City of Angels. But as part of a settlement following an earlier, now voided, ruling by the 9th Circuit, the LAPD has agreed not to enforce that provision of the law.)

People with no other place to sleep have a “choice” of whether to rent a room or walk the streets all night the same way people required to show government-issued ID in order to fly from Hawaii to the US mainland have a “choice” of whether to fly or walk on water.

But the 9th Circuit was able to find the law in violation of the 4th Amendment, despite this fictive “voluntariness”, because the lawsuit was brought by hotel owners, not hotel guests.  It’s the hoteliers’ rights that the court found were violated by (involuntary) warrantless, suspicionless, extrajudicial police inspection of their business records about their guests.

We salute Naranjibhai Patel, Ramilaben Patel, and the Los Angeles Lodging Association for using their legal standing to challenge this law and insist that the police go to a judge and come back with a warrant.

Most travel companies are only too happy to collaborate with government agencies in spying on their customers. They’d prefer that governments pay them for their work as informers and data collectors, of course. But even without cash compensation, they benefit from being able to blame the government for intrusive demands for credentials and personal information, while getting a free ride to monetize this government-coerced informational windfall for their own marketing and other purposes.

We can find no record of any other case in which a travel company has challenged government demands for information about travelers. Nor have we found any travel company that makes public what government requests or demands it has received for data about its customers, how it has responded to those requests or demands, or how much information it has handed over.  (Google publishes a “transparency report” for its Web services, but makes no mention of the exchanges of data between Google’s ITA Software airline reservations and PNR-hosting component and government agencies in the US or abroad.)

Police have plenty of ways to make life hard for the proprietors of mom-and-pop motels on skid row.  If the plaintiffs in Patel v. City of L.A. could say “No” to big-city police demands for information about their customers and guests, and prevail in court, so could major hotel chains and other large travel companies. Travelers should demand that they do so.

Does a US citizen need the government’s permission to return to the US?

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Do you think that if you are a U.S. citizen you have a right to return to your country, and don’t need “authorization” from the US government?

Article 12, section 4 of the ICCPR (a treaty ratified by and binding on the US) provides that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” And the right of US citizens to enter the US has long been recognized as one of the most fundamental aspects of the Constitutional right to travel.

But it appears that’s not what the US government thinks:

(Click image for larger version.)

This bizarre “yes-fly” document, first made public today and first published here, was provided to lawyers for Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim on the fourth day of the week-long trial last month of Dr. Ibrahim’s lawsuit challenging her placement on the US government’s “no-fly” list.

The day before the trial began, Dr. Ibrahim’s US-born US-citizen daughter, Ms. Raihan Mustafa Kamal, was denied boarding on the first of a set of connecting flights she had booked from Malaysia to to San Francisco to attend and testify at her mother’s trial.

Lawyers for the government defendants, including US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), claimed that they had “confirmed that the defendants did nothing to deny plaintiff’s daughter boarding…. she just simply missed her flight. She has been re-booked on a flight tomorrow. She should arrive tomorrow.”

As it turned out, none of those claims were true. Ms. Mustafa Kamal hadn’t “missed” her flight. She showed up on time, but , but was denied boarding as a result of an email message from CBP to the airline. She wasn’t booked on any other flight, and she never made it to her mother’s trial.

At a hearing held the afternoon after the rest of the trial had concluded, Dr. Ibrahim’s lawyers presented a sworn declaration from Ms. Mustafa Mamal including a copy provided to her by Malaysia Airlines of the email message from CBP that led to her being denied boarding.

In response to Judge Alsup’s demands (”I want a witness from Homeland Security who can testify to what has happened. You find a witness and get them here…. I want to know whether the government did something to obstruct a witness”), the defendants brought the director of the CBP’s National Targeting Center, Ms. Maureen Dugan, to San Francisco to testify and face cross-examination about what had happened to Ms. Mustafa Kamal. At the defendants’ insistence, however, the courtroom was cleared of spectators for all of Ms. Dugan’s testimony and the remainder of that hearing.

The defendants also filed a declaration from Ms. Dugan. That declaration was filed “under seal”, but after his verdict Judge Alsup reiterated his order that a  summary or redacted version of each sealed document, specifically including Ms. Dugan’s declaration, be made public.

Today the government defendants filed a redacted version pf Ms. Dugan’s declaration about what happened to Ms. Mustafa Kamal, including the “AUTHORIZATION TO TRANSPORT UNITED STATES CITIZEN TO THE UNITED STATES” reproduced above.

So now, as a result of this case and specifically as a result of CBP’s misconduct with respect to Ms. Mustafa Kamal, we have seen for the first time both a no-fly message and a yes-fly message.

What can we learn from these strange goings-on and communications?

The US government seems to think that even US citizens need the government’s permission to travel to the US. The CBP didn’t issue a reminder to airlines or other common carriers of their general obligation to transport all qualified would-be passengers, or sanction the airline for denying boarding to Ms. Mustafa Kamal despite her undisputed US birth and US citizenship.

Rather, the CBP issued an individualized, time-limited authorization to airlines to transport Ms. Mustafa Kamal to the US. Such affirmative, individualized “authorization” would make no sense unless the default, even for a US citizen, is, “NO.”

This is a blatant violation of US citizens’ Constitutional rights, and of US obligations as a party to the ICCPR.

(A somewhat similar “Transportation [Authorization] Letter” is discussed on p. 46 of the CBP  Carrier Information Guide for airlines. But the example shown in the Carrier Information Guide is for a non-US citizen whose “Green Card” has been lost, stolen, or damaged while they are abroad, and who needs temporary evidence of permanent US residency to be able to return to the US to get her Green Card replaced.  A Green Card — US permanent residency document — can’t be replaced outside the US, but a passport can. So it’s unclear why a US citizen would need such a document in lieu of an emergency passport, or why it would be considered better evidence of US citizenship than a passport.)

But why did CBP send a “possible no-board request” with respect to Ms. Mustafa Kamal?

Was Ms. Mustafa Kamal, like her mother, “mistakenly” placed on the no-fly list? Dr. Ibrahim’s lawyer — who knows Dr. Ibrahim’s status on or off the no-fly list, but is not allowed to disclose this information to her client or to the public — stated in open court during closing arguments that Ms. Mustafa Kamal’s status on the “no-fly” list was “the same as that of her mother”.  But it seems more likely, from the rest of what has been claimed publicly, that neither of them are currently on the no-fly list.  If Ms. Mustafa Kamal were, in fact, on the no-fly list, it would have been an out-and-out lie for government lawyers to tell Judge Alsup that their client CBP was not responsible for the airline’s denial of boarding to Ms. Mustafa Kamal.

A more likely explanation is that Ms. Mustafa Kamal and her mother are currently both on what was described euphemistically in pleadings made public in redacted form yesterday as a “watchlist”, but which is used in a manner that results in it functioning as a de facto blacklist with the same effect as the “no-fly” list.  The email message sent to the airline didn’t say anything explicit about the no-fly list, but its natural and foreseeable consequence was that Ms. Mustafa Kamal would be denied boarding — as in fact she was.

Perhaps most disturbingly, this suggests that the government could nominally comply with Judge Alsup’s order to remove Dr. Ibrahim from the “no-fly” list, but keep her on a “watchlist” that has the same effect.

Only if Dr. Ibrahim gets a US visa (which seems unlikely) and tries to travel to the US, or if she tries to fly on a US-flag carrier (such as on United Airlines from Singapore to Hong Kong or Tokyo), or if Ms. Mustafa Kamal tries again to travel to the US, are we likely to learn more about what actual US government actions and restrictions either of them is subjected to. That, and not the label placed on any list, is what matters.

Government finally admits plaintiff was on the “no-fly” list

Monday, January 27th, 2014

A month and half after the conclusion of the first trial in any case challenging the US government’s “no-fly” list, and more than a week after Judge William Alsup’s decision that the rights of the plaintiff in the case, Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim, were violated, the government has finally admitted explicitly and publicly that:

  1. Dr. Ibrahim was, in fact, on the US government’s “no-fly” list, which was shared with, among other entities, the Canadian and Australian governments. (There’s no mention of sharing of these lists with the UK or other European Union countries, perhaps because vetting against watchlists and blacklists of passengers on flights to, from, and within the EU is carried out by DHS employees posted in the EU, rather than by European governments.)
  2. After being removed from the “no-fly” blacklist or blocklist, Dr. Ibrahim was placed on a government watchlist (included in the same database with the no-fly list) with a “handling code… allowing law enforcement officers to ask the individual probing but non-alerting questions, and search[] the individual’s passport.” While the “no-fly” list has often been incorrectly and euphemistically described as a “watchlist”, the treatment of Dr. Ibrahim, and these detailed admissions in particular, makes clear that the government itself distinguishes blacklisting/blocking (travel control) and watchlisting (travel surveillance) as different, although related, functions.
  3. The watchlist entry for Dr. Ibrahim included “entry criteria codes” signifying “Corroborated identification as a group member by an informant or individual of unknown reliability” and “Frequents a documented group’s area, associates with known group members, and/or affects group dress, hand signals, tattoos, or symbols.” There’s still no public indication of the basis for these (false) conclusions. The FBI agent who “nominated” Dr. Ibrahim for inclusion on the “no-fly” list did so “mistakenly”. From the latest redacted filings and prior statements in open court, it appears that the agent thought he was filling out the form to nominate Dr. Ibrahim for mere watchlisting rather than inclusion on the “no-fly” blacklist/blocklist.
  4. In closed court, “Agent Kelley testified that until his deposition on September 12, 2013 he had never had a watchlist nomination rejected and that in answer to the question ‘you had also never heard of anyone else having a watchlist nomination rejected?’ he answered ‘no.’” This belies the government’s claims that the basis for each such “nomination” is carefully reviewed before a name is added to a blacklist or watchlist.

Of course, Dr. Ibrahim already knew she was on the “no-fly” list, since but for her listing on this US government blacklist she wouldn’t have been denied boarding on her flight and arrested at SFO in 2005. But until now, both before and throughout the trial, the government refused to confirm this fact publicly, and claimed that it could not do so (or tell Dr. Ibrahim her current status on any blacklist or watchlist) without jeopardizing national security.

These admissions came in snippets between redacted passages in government briefs belatedly filed today in response to Judge Alsup’s latest reiteration of his standing orders for filing of public summaries or redacted versions of all pleadings and declarations filed “under seal” in the case.

The briefs filed today by the government defendants were due this past Friday, but were filed today with a declaration that the government’s lawyers (despite being located in the same building as the clerk’s office, where they could have filed them over the counter) were unable to file them on Friday due to technical problems with the court’s electronic document handling system:

A public redacted version of one more document previously filed only under seal, a declaration from the Director of the CBP National Targeting Center concerning what happened to Dr. Ibrahim’s daughter, a US citizen who was denied boarding when she tried to fly to the US to attend and testify at her mother’s trial, is due to be filed by the government tomorrow. There’s still been no public explanation of what, if any, valid basis US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) could have had for telling airlines that a US citizen might not be admitted to the US.

Defendants in “no-fly” case ignore judge’s deadline to make their arguments public

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Last week Judge William Alsup ordered the parties to Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim’s lawsuit challenging her placement on the US government’s no-fly list to file redacted public versions, by noon today, of the “sealed” briefs and replies they submitted following the trial in the case last month.  These briefs included each side’s proposals of what factual and legal findings they believed the judge should make.

Shortly before noon  today, Dr. Ibrahim’s lawyers filed redacted (but nonetheless interesting) versions of their sealed post-trial briefs:

More than an hour after the deadline, nothing had been filed by the defendants, and no explanation had been given. (See the comments below and follow-up articles for updates.) It remains to be seen if the defendants are merely late, if they are ignoring Judge Alsup’s order, or if they are on their way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to seek an emergency writ or stay pending appeal.

Additional information about why Dr. Ibrahim’s daughter Ms. Raihan binti Mustafa Kamal, a US-born citizen, was prevented from flying to the US to testify at her mother’s trial, is due to be made public next Tuesaday, Jan. 28th. Judge Alsup has ordered the government defendants to file a redacted public version of the sworn declaration submitted by Ms. Maureen Dugan, the director of the CBP National Targeting Center and the sole witness at the post-trial hearing concerning what happened to Ms. Mustafa Kamal.


Judge orders more disclosure about what happened to daughter of plaintiff in “no-fly” trial

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

One of the most disturbing aspects of the trial last month in Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim’s lawsuit challenging her placement on the US government’s “no-fly” list was what happened to Dr. Ibrahim’s daughter, Ms. Raihan binti Mustafa Kamal.

Ms. Mustafa Kamal, a lawyer and member of the Malaysian bar, was born in the US and is a US citizen.  She accompanied her mother to the airport in Kuala Lumpur in March 2005 when, after having been allowed to travel from the US to Malaysia (and after being assured that the “mistake” that led to her arrest when she tried to leave San Francisco had been corrected), Dr. Ibrahim was prevented from board a flight back to the US.

The government defendants had been notified that Ms. Mustafa Kamal might testify at her mother’s trial, as an eyewitness to these events.  But the day before the trial, when Ms. Mustafa Kamal tried to board a flight in K.L. that would connect her to San Francisco, she was denied boarding as a result of a message sent to the airline by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), one of the defendants in the lawsuit. Ms. Mustafa Kamal never made it to the US for her mother’s trial.

The afternoon following the conclusion of the trial, Judge William Alsup held a hearing behind closed doors at which the government defendants presented a written declaration and in-person testimony about what happened to Ms. Mustafa Kamal from Maureen Dugan, Director of the CBP’s “National Targeting Center”.  That declaration and that testimony are likely to have provided the most detailed explanation yet provided in any US legal proceeding as to the mechanisms by which an entry on a “watchlist” is translated into messages to, and action by, an airline that denies boarding to an individual.

After this hearing, Judge Alsup offered Dr. Ibrahim opportunities to request that he re-open the case the presentation of evidence to allow Ms. Mustafa Kamal time to make another attempt to travel to the US to testify. But Dr. Ibrahim’s lawyers declined that offer:

At the closed hearing on Friday, December 6, 2013, regarding the travel difficulties of plaintiff’s daughter, Raihan Mustafa Kamal, the Court allowed plaintiff the opportunity to consider whether to re-open evidence for Ms. Mustafa Kamal to testify. Because of concerns about the safety and liberty of Ms. Mustafa Kamal were she to attempt to travel to the United States, plaintiff elects to proceed on the evidence presented at the trial.

As we noted at the time, the most obvious potential concern for Ms. Mustafa Kamal is that she might be allowed to fly to the US, but then not allowed to return to Malaysia, where she lives and works.

The transcript of the December 6, 2013 hearing, along with the rest of the transcripts of closed portions of the trial, remains sealed, at least for now, pending the possibility of government appeals. In addition, despite Judge Alsup’s orders that any sealed written filings in the case musty be accompanied by versions redacted for publication or public summaries, no public summary or redacted version of Ms. Dugan’s declaration has been filed.

Judge Alsup has now ordered the government defendants to file a public version of Ms. Dugan’s declaration about what happened to Ms. Mustafa Kamal by January 28, 2013.  We expect that the government’s redactions will, as usual, be excessive and unjustified. But at a minimum, this will compel the government to further refine exactly what about this case it thinks need to be kept secret from the public, and why.

TSA thinks Congress can override international treaties

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Dismissing formal objections filed by the Identity Project and other organizations, the TSA has decided to go ahead with its “Pre-Check” (Pre-Crime) scheme to collect and use even more comprehensive secret dossiers about travelers as part of the inputs to the TSA “black box” that decides whether you are allowed to fly, and if so, how intrusively you and your luggage will be searched as a condition of exercising your right to travel.

In the TSA’s initial proposal and request for comments, it stated the outcome of its “public consultation” as a fait accompli. The “notice and comment” process was a sham, and  the TSA brushed off our objections.

Most of the analysis accompanying the “final rule” exempting the new data elements in TSA files about travelers from the Privacy Act was devoted to why the TSA isn’t even pretending to consult the public about its procedures for deciding who to search and how intrusively.  “No new substantive burden or impediment for any traveler has been created,” the TSA claims, by requiring submission to more intrusive search as a condition of travel. You don’t find having your genitals groped a burden or your body viewed as though naked a “burden”, do you? If so, you must have deserved the TSA’s suspicion in the first place.  And as long as most people find it a convenience, it’s OK if others’ rights are denied:

Contrary to some commenters’ assertion that the TSA PreCheckTM Application Program infringes upon an individual’s right to travel, this program will provide an added convenience to the majority of the traveling public.

Most disturbingly, the TSA had this to say in response to our objections to the Pre-Check pre-crime scheme based on the First Amendment to the Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

Several commenters objected that the TSA PreCheckTM Application Program violates the U.S. Constitution or international treaty. DHS disagrees with the commenters as to the Constitutionality of the program, and notes that the treaty cited by an advocacy group expressly contradicts the position taken by the commenter by excluding requirements provided by law or necessary for national security from the treaty’s proscription.

So the TSA claims that the ICCPR permits exceptions either allowed by national law OR necessary for national security.  The ICCPR says no such thing.  Any exceptions to Article 12 of the ICCPR must be provided by law  necessary for national security (i.e. actually effective and the least restriction such alternative, which the TSA hasn’t shown) AND must be consistent with the other provisions of the treaty (such as Article 17 on the right to privacy).

This is not a new (false) claim by the DHS about the relationship of international treaties to US law. The DHS made the same claims in response to some of our previous complaints of violations of the ICCPR, as we pointed out in an (as yet unanswered) letter requesting review of those responses.

In claiming to believe that Congress can override international treaty obligations, the TSA demonstrates its disregard for the Constitution, which makes treaties as much “the law of the land” as is the Constitution itself, above any power of derogation by statute. In its failure to understand the ICCPR and the basic heirarchy of Constitutional and treaty law, the TSA also evinces its failure to fulfill the orders of the President for it and all other agencies to, “maintain a current awareness of United States international human rights obligations that are relevant to their functions and … perform such functions so as to respect and implement those obligations fully.”


Where is the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the DHS?

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

“Democracy needs whistleblowers. That’s why I broke into the FBI in 1971,” begins an op-ed by Bonnie Raines, one of the members of the previously-anonymous “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” who took the spotlight today through public appearances and interviews and the publication of a new book about their 1971 action, The Burglary, by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger.

The Citizens’ Commission — Bonnie Raines, her husband John Raines, Keith Forsyth, Bob Williamson, the late William Davidon, the pseudonymous “Ron Durst” and “Sarah Smith”, and their eighth still-unnamed collaborator, referred to in the book as “Janet Fessenden” — broke into a relatively minor but also relatively poorly secured FBI office near Philadelphia, stole “probably about six big suitcases” full of documents, and sent copies of those documents revealing FBI political surveillance and “dirty tricks” to various reporters and publications.

The Complete Collection of Political Documents Ripped-Off from the F.B.I. Office in Media, Pa., March 8, 1971” was eventually published in full a year later by the War Resisters League as a special double issue of WIN Magazine. These documents included the first public appearance of the FBI code-word “COINTELPRO“.  The documents, damning the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover in their own words, and the exposure of COINTELPRO, unseated Hoover and the FBI from their “untouchable” pedestals of public respect and secret power, prompted the Church Commission hearings, and led to executive orders and legislation at least purporting to reign in FBI political surveillance and meddling in non-criminal political activities.

Daniel Ellsberg (who praises the new book, The Burglary, as “a masterpiece”) has spoken repeatedly over the years of his desire to learn the identities of the members of the Citizens’ Commission, so that he could thank them personally for their whistleblowing. Today we are finally able to give the members of the Citizens’ Commission, named and unnamed, the credit they have long deserved for their courage and commitment in service to the causes of truth and justice.

But members of the Citizens’ Commission identified themselves publicly today not to claim their rightful place in the pantheon of muckraking heroes who have taken personal risks to expose government misconduct (entitled though they are to do so) but in order to call attention to the continuing need for more actions like theirs, and to the righteousness of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden who have taken such actions more recently.

The Citizens’ Commission weren’t “leakers”.  They were outsiders tapping into the sewage pipe of government secrets from the outside, not insiders “leaking” secrets from within the apparatus of government surveillance and subversion.  It’s important to distinguish them from insiders like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Dan Ellsberg, and Tony Russo.

As the name of the “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” itself quite accurately reflects, its members acted as independent investigators and investigative journalists, not “leakers”.  They were the “hackers” of their time, carrying out their hacks with disguises, crowbars, and photocopiers rather than with code.

That makes the courage and commitment of the Citizens’ Commission all the more noteworthy. Ellsberg, Snowden, and Manning were all in positions of privileged access to closely-held information. The knowledge of that unusual privilege could, for people of conscience, translate itself into a greater sense of obligation to act on one’s knowledge. The members of the Citizens’ Commission, on the other hand, started out with no special knowledge and no special access. They did something that any member of the public could have done.

“But there was absolutely no one in Washington — senators, congressmen, even the president — who dared hold J. Edgar Hoover to accountability,“ John Raines told the New York Times. “It became pretty obvious to us that if we don’t do it, nobody will.”

In their press conference today, members of the Citizens’ Commission reminded reporters that the government made the same claims about the documents they stole from the FBI and gave to journalists as it has made recently about the documents taken from the NSA and passed on to journalists by Edward Snowden. In both cases, the government tried to persuade newspapers not to publish the documents, and justified criminal investigations of the thefts or leaks, on the basis of claims that the documents contained critical information that could jeopardize national security if revealed to the public.

“Within days of our action, the government was spreading stories that the documents included things like locations of missile silos and so forth,” Keith Forsyth of the Citizens’ Commission points out.

“That was a complete fabrication,” Forsyth says, based on his knowledge of documents the Citizens’ Commission eventually burned — pertaining to ordinary criminal matters rather than specifically political activities — as well as the political documents they released to the news media.  Forsyth says he’ll believe Snowden has released information genuinely damaging to national security if the government produces an actual example of such a disclosure in the material Snowden has given to the press.

We should be equally skeptical of contemporary DHS claims about the “sensitivity” and need for secrecy of information about its operations.  One of the lessons we draw from the FBI response to the actions of the Citizens’ Commission is that such claims are typically made primarily to protect government officials against public accountability, not to protect the public against private crime or threats from abroad.


Briefs on issues remaining after “no-fly” trial

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

Now that the “no-fly” trial in Ibrahim v. DHS et al. is over, what’s the verdict?

Because this was a “bench trial” without a jury, Judge Alsup will decide both factual and legal issues.  His decision is not expected for weeks or months. There is no requirement for a speedy verdict in a case like this.

Before issuing his decision, Judge Alsup has asked both sides to submit briefs on a variety of legal issues, including which of the various categories of “secret” evidence he should consider and which he should make public.  Naturally, the government submitted its own brief on this issue in secret.

The current round of briefing is scheduled to conclude this Friday, December 20, 2013. Unless Judge Alsup asks for additional submissions on some question he thinks requires clarification, the next public activity in the docket will be the issuance of Judge Alsup’s next ruling. That could be either a verdict on the case, or a ruling on some or all of the preliminary matters such as which evidence to consider or make public.

Here are the briefs and orders relating to the issues remaining for Judge Alsup to decide:

DHS stonewalls New York Times’ requests for travel records

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

A lawsuit filed last week by the New York Times shows that even reporters for the  Gray Lady have been targeted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for the same special scrutiny as less-mainstream journalists, and that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) FOIA and Privacy Office continues to use the same tactics in responding to requests for its files about travelers, even when dealing with the Times, as it has used in response to requests and lawsuits by disfavored requesters such as ourselves:

  • Losing requests and appeals, or claiming to have no record of them;
  • Delaying responses or simply ignoring requests;
  • Failing to refer requests to the DHS components they knew were most likely to have responsive records; and
  • Claiming not to have sufficient information to locate records, or not to have identified responsive records, even when official notices published by the DHS or its components such as CBP have stated that records of this sport are part of a “system of records” retrievable by name or other personal identifier.

According to their complaint, two reporters for the Times, C.J. Chivers and Mac William Bishop, were “subject to segregated questioning by DHS employees at JFK on May 24, 2013, as they prepared to board an international flight for a work assignment as journalists.”

Both reporters subsequently filed requests with the DHS headquarters for “records used or created by DHS employees in respect to the questioning of Plaintiffs at JFK airport” and for “all information and records in the possession of DHS concerning” them.

It appears that the Times’ reporters were unfamiliar with the Privacy Act “System Of Records Notices” that the DHS has published, which are required to describe which agencies keep which types of records about individuals. A SORN must be published, and must disclose the type of information contained in such a systems and how it is used,  even when the records themselves have been exempted from disclosure.

In any event, the Times’ reporters didn’t send their requests to CBP or specifically mention thT CBP records should be included in the search for responsive records. And they didn’t specifically refer to the systems of records (including the Automated Targeting System and TECS) that should be searched.

This shouldn’t be necessary, of course, but in our experience, DHS FOIA officers pretend to be even more incompetent than they really are. Unless you spell out which systems of records of which DHS components you want them to search, they will search (if at all) only in places other than those where the responsive records are likely to be found.

The records that enabled the DHS to intercept Messrs. Chivers and Bishop at JFK airport, as well as the records of their questioning (which was probably conducted by CBP officers) are almost certainly part of the CBP “TECS” and/or “Automated Targeting System” (ATS) databases.

We’ve written previously about How airline reservations are used to target illegal searches using TECS records, using examples of DHS records related to searches and questioning of other journalists.  We’ve posted templates to request your own records as well as examples of responses.  Contact us if you’d like help interpreting responses to your requests.

Rather than referring the Times’ reporters requests to CBP or searching for their TECS and ATS files, the DHS headquarters FOIA office:

  1. Lost (or pretended to lose) their requests;
  2. Delayed responses, or failed to respond at all;
  3. Referred the requests to two other DHS components (TSA and ICE) that they knew or reasonably should have known would be unlikely to have the requested records, but not to CBP; and
  4. Claimed not to have enough information to conduct a search, even though TECS and ATS are specifically designed to allow travel records to be searched for by as many criteria as possible: name, passport number, credit card number used to pay for the ticket, telephone number provided to the airline when reconfirming reservations, IP address from which the reservation was made, etc.

All this is depressingly familiar to us from our years of experience in trying to obtain such records.

In light of the involvement and intimate familiarity of the DHS headquarters FOIA and Privacy Office with the ongoing, high-level controversy over usage of, and access to, PNR data included in the TECS and ATS systems operate by CBP, the failure to refer the request to CBP is unambiguous evidence of either bad faith or gross incompetence in processing the requests from the Times’ reporters.

We wish the Times and its reporters all success in their lawsuit.