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NSA's Plan to Use Porn Habits to Discredit 'Radicalizers'
By monitoring online activity of suspected terrorists and foreign agitators, agency reveals lengths it will go
New documents obtained by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and leaked to journalist Glenn Greenwald and the Huffington Post show that the spy agency made plans to use the online activities, including visits to pornographic sites and other habits, of so-called Muslim "radicalizers" in order to discredit their standing.
"The NSA's operation is eerily similar to the FBI's operations under J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s where the bureau used wiretapping to discover vulnerabilities, such as sexual activity, to 'neutralize' their targets." –James Bamford, journalist
According to the reporting:
The National Security Agency has been gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches, according to a top-secret NSA document. The document, provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, identifies six targets, all Muslims, as “exemplars” of how “personal vulnerabilities” can be learned through electronic surveillance, and then exploited to undermine a target's credibility, reputation and authority.
The NSA document, dated Oct. 3, 2012, repeatedly refers to the power of charges of hypocrisy to undermine such a messenger. “A previous SIGINT" -- or signals intelligence, the interception of communications -- "assessment report on radicalization indicated that radicalizers appear to be particularly vulnerable in the area of authority when their private and public behaviors are not consistent,” the document argues.
And Greenwald subsequently made note:
2 key facts about NSA porn-spying story: 1) none of targets is accused of terrorism; 2) targets include a US person http://t.co/neSa6NNPaA— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) November 27, 2013
Though both current and former NSA officials said such a program would make sense in order to thwart terrorist activity, others told the HuffPo that the secret program is just another example of just how much the agency is collecting and what they're able to do with the data they collect.
As the ACLU's Ben Wizner tweeted:
Hmm, what could be dangerous about the world's most powerful spy agency using pornography viewing habits to discredit political opponents?— Ben Wizner (@benwizner) November 27, 2013
"It's important to remember that the NSA’s surveillance activities are anything but narrowly focused -- the agency is collecting massive amounts of sensitive information about virtually everyone," Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the ACLUE, told the HuffPo, warning that abuses of a program like this were easy to see.
"Wherever you are, the NSA's databases store information about your political views, your medical history, your intimate relationships and your activities online," he said. "The NSA says this personal information won't be abused, but these documents show that the NSA probably defines 'abuse' very narrowly."
Though all documented targets of this program appeared to be outside the United States, at least one was indicated to be a U.S. national. And the idea that such programs will only be used to target suspected terrorists runs into the problematic history of government surveillance on U.S. dissidents, political activists, and labor organizers.
As the Huffington Posts explains:
Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI harassed activists and compiled secret files on political leaders, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr. The extent of the FBI's surveillance of political figures is still being revealed to this day, as the bureau releases the long dossiers it compiled on certain people in response to Freedom of Information Act requests following their deaths. The information collected by the FBI often centered on sex -- homosexuality was an ongoing obsession on Hoover's watch -- and information about extramarital affairs was reportedly used to blackmail politicians into fulfilling the bureau's needs.
Current FBI Director James Comey recently ordered new FBI agents to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington to understand "the dangers in becoming untethered to oversight and accountability."
James Bamford, a journalist who has been covering the NSA since the early 1980s, said the use of surveillance to exploit embarrassing private behavior is precisely what led to past U.S. surveillance scandals. "The NSA's operation is eerily similar to the FBI's operations under J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s where the bureau used wiretapping to discover vulnerabilities, such as sexual activity, to 'neutralize' their targets," he said. "Back then, the idea was developed by the longest serving FBI chief in U.S. history, today it was suggested by the longest serving NSA chief in U.S. history."
As ACLU's Jaffer commented, "The NSA has used its power [to discredit domestic political opponents] in the past and it would be naïve to think it couldn't use its power that way in the future," he said.