How Domestic Surveillance of Journalists & Citizens Became Standard US Government Practice
23:18 GMT 14.12.2021 (Updated: 23:19 GMT 14.12.2021)
Under the Trump administration, the Counter Network Division, a special unit within Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, used government databases intended for terrorist tracking to investigate 20 US-based journalists, Yahoo News revealed on Saturday.
CBP is the largest federal law enforcement agency in the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The bombshell revelation prompted ire among US news organisations, with AP's executive editor, Julie Pace, urging DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to explain why the agency ran the name of an AP reporter through its databases. In its statement, the CBP claimed that the agency "does not investigate individuals without a legitimate and legal basis to do so." However, according to AP, "this appears to be an example of journalists being targeted for simply doing their jobs, which is a violation of the First Amendment."
Are US Federal Probes Turning Into Paranoia?
"The Department of Homeland Security has pretty much summed up America's authoritarian drift since its creation in the wake of 9/11," says Daniel Lazare, an independent journalist, author, and writer.
Lazare mocks the newly revealed operation, carried out by the Counter Network Division's Jeffrey Rambo in 2017 and dubbed "Operation Whistle Pig," adding that "the particulars of the case are less interesting than the general trend, which is toward greater and greater paranoia." To illustrate his point the independent journalist refers to the FBI's Operation Crossfire Hurricane into alleged Trump-Russia collusion which turned out to be what CNN described as a "big nothing burger".
He also cites the US intelligence community and mainstream media attempts to depict New York Post's allegations about Hunter Biden as "Russia disinformation." Lazare also posits what he refers to as vain efforts by the Democrat-run US House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack as a means of steering public attention away from a question of "whether FBI or CIA informants helped egg on the insurrection."
"So while the DHS has promised to call off its bloodhounds with regard to the AP, my sense is that paranoia will merely take on new forms as it continues to metastasize," the writer says. "The problem can only get worse."
11 October 2021, 16:00 GMT
Why US Federal Agencies are Tracking Independent Journalists
"Operation Whistle Pig" is just one of numerous surveillance efforts carried out by US federal agencies against journalists, notes former Department of Defence veteran analyst Karen Kwiatkowski.
"Utilising national technical means to track journalists, access their metadata to determine and identify their anonymous or protected sources, and using domestic law enforcement capabilities to monitor, pressure and prosecute journalists into revealing their sources has been done for more than just the previous administration," Kwiatkowski says, referring to similar ops under the Obama administration.
In particular, the veteran DoD analyst refers to Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter James Risen, who was persecuted under the Obama administration over his refusal to reveal confidential sources. In February 2015, Risen called the Obama administration "the greatest enemy of press freedom." Additionally, the Obama cabinet and also subsequent US administrations have targeted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, seeking his extradition to the US.
11 December 2021, 17:19 GMT
Earlier this year, a scandal erupted over allegations of spying on Fox News host Tucker Carlson. In June the journalist claimed, citing an unnamed whistleblower within the US government, that the National Security Agency (NSA) was monitoring his electronic communications
and had planned to leak them to the press to take his show off of the air for "political reasons."
"This is increasingly standard practice for US administrations," Kwiatkowski suggests. "However, in the case of US citizens, without FISA Court authorization, this kind of surveillance and targeting remains illegal and unconstitutional."
While the US government usually justifies its conduct as matters of "national security," in reality, according to the Pentagon veteran, it is protecting "government security" by chasing those who are leaking factual information that the US leadership finds "embarrassing".
She refers to ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden's revelation with regard to National Security Agency's global spying programmes; Chelsea Manning's exposure of Pentagon war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and WikiLeaks bombshells, including Vault 7, which detailed CIA hacking techniques and cyber-tools.
13 August 2021, 19:34 GMT
"Avoiding political embarrassment, and controlling a certain political narrative is, for most people in Washington DC, more important and more compelling than national security," she stresses.
While mainstream journalism in the US "is well moderated and normally serves to promote the government narrative of whatever subject, be it health, national security or science and technology," there are alternative media sources that occasionally manage to gain audience and traction, she offered.
Ironically, according to Kwiatkowski, US government agencies are keeping an eye on dissenting news sources and independent journalists akin to Washington's Cold War-era rivals, whom the US leadership used to scold for their own lack of press freedom.
How US Gov't Agencies are Surveilling Americans
It's not only journalists who are being surveilled by US government agencies, however, as a FISA compliance review written in November 2020 and declassified on 26 April 2021 revealed that the FBI used the NSA's massive electronic troves for warrantless searches
of US citizens' information, despite having been previously censured by a court for such activities.
In May 2021, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden raised an alarm over what he described as the Pentagon's warrantless spying on US citizens
. The DoD reportedly used various software tools that used location data harvested from common apps installed on peoples' phones. Wyden's investigation also "confirmed the warrantless purchase of Americans' location data by the Internal Revenue Service, Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Defence Intelligence Agency," according to the senator's letter, addressed to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.
That same month, CNN reported that the Biden administration was considering using private firms to surveil "suspected domestic terrorists" online
under the pretext that the DHS and the FBI, are limited in how they can monitor citizens online without a warrant. An unnamed source said to be familiar with the matter told the broadcaster that outside entities hired by federal authorities would be able to "legally" infiltrate private groups to gather vast amounts of information.