Powers Designed for 'Terrorists' Entangle US Top Brass

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Common Dreams

Powers Designed for 'Terrorists' Entangle US Top Brass

In an ironic twist, law enforcement's ability to secretly examine online email accounts yields unlikely targets

by
Common Dreams staff

David Petraeus, left, submitted his resignation as director of the CIA citing an extramarital affair. Marine General John Allen, right, is now under investigation for alleged "inappropriate communications" with a woman involved in the Petraeus scandal. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

As the New York Times reports Tuesday morning that the Petraeus sex scandal has now spread and the Pentagon has initiated an investigation into top NATO commander in Afghanistan, US General John Allen, what is becoming increasingly clear—beyond all the seemingly bizarre twists of this unfolding drama and leaving aside the question about whether or not the private sexual lives of top officials are, in fact, worthy of the endless media blitz they receive—is that the FBI's ability to examine private email accounts during an investigation are having far-reaching, if not ironic, consequences.

In this case, it seems that some of the military's most senior officers have been undone by some of the aggressive electronic policing measures that law enforcements officers in the US have argued were necessary to capture dangerous terrorist networks operating in the US and abroad in the post-9/11 world.

As the Associated Press reports:

The downfall of CIA Director David Petraeus demonstrates how easy it is for federal law enforcement agents to examine emails and computer records if they believe a crime was committed. With subpoenas and warrants, the FBI and other investigating agencies routinely gain access to electronic inboxes and information about email accounts offered by Google, Yahoo and other Internet providers.

"The government can't just wander through your emails just because they'd like to know what you're thinking or doing," said Stewart Baker, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and now in private law practice. "But if the government is investigating a crime, it has a lot of authority to review people's emails."

And as independent journalist Dave Lindorff points out:

[...] What makes the epic collapse of this consummate political general’s career so exquisite is that it was the post-9-11 spying capabilities of the FBI that allowed its agents to slip unannounced into the email of the General’s paramour, Paula Broadwell (a name that could have been selected by Ian Fleming!), and possibly into the general’s own email too, there to find the evidence, allegedly in the form of X-rated letters, of a covert adulterous relationship underway.

We now know that the FBI was alerted to this breach of decorum [...] and lack of judgement on the part of the head of the nation’s spooks, by a second woman, Jill Kelley, who was a volunteer military liaison and family friend of the Petraeus clan.

"Technology has evolved in a way that makes the content of more communications available to law enforcement without judicial authorization, and at a very low level of suspicion," Greg Nojeim, a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, explained to AP.

The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald notes that "What is most striking is how sweeping, probing and invasive the FBI's investigation then became, all without any evidence of any actual crime - or the need for any search warrant." And continues:

This is a surveillance state run amok. It also highlights how any remnants of internet anonymity have been all but obliterated by the union between the state and technology companies.

But, as unwarranted and invasive as this all is, there is some sweet justice in having the stars of America's national security state destroyed by the very surveillance system which they implemented and over which they preside. As Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it this morning: "Who knew the key to stopping the Surveillance State was to just wait until it got so big that it ate itself?"

It is usually the case that abuses of state power become a source for concern and opposition only when they begin to subsume the elites who are responsible for those abuses. Recall how former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman - one of the most outspoken defenders of the illegal Bush National Security Agency (NSA) warrantless eavesdropping program - suddenly began sounding like an irate, life-long ACLU privacy activist when it was revealed that the NSA had eavesdropped on her private communications with a suspected Israeli agent over alleged attempts to intervene on behalf of AIPAC officials accused of espionage. Overnight, one of the Surveillance State's chief assets, the former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, transformed into a vocal privacy proponent because now it was her activities, rather than those of powerless citizens, which were invaded.

With the private, intimate activities of America's most revered military and intelligence officials being smeared all over newspapers and televisions for no good reason, perhaps similar conversions are possible. Put another way, having the career of the beloved CIA Director and the commanding general in Afghanistan instantly destroyed due to highly invasive and unwarranted electronic surveillance is almost enough to make one believe not only that there is a god, but that he is an ardent civil libertarian.

In an additional twist, it seems that Petraeus and his mistress Broadwell used one of the simple secrecy tricks "used by terrorists and teenagers" alike to hide their clandestine affair. As AP explains:

One of the law enforcement officials said [Petraeus and Broadwell] did not transmit all of their communications as emails from one's inbox to the other's inbox. Rather, they composed some emails in a Gmail account and instead of transmitting them, left them in a draft folder or in an electronic "dropbox." Then the other person could log onto the same account and read the draft emails there. This avoids creating an email trail which is easier to trace. It's a technique that al-Qaida terrorists began using several years ago and teen-agers in many countries have since adopted.

In the end, however, it was not enough to thwart the expansive investigative powers of the FBI.

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