As we just recently covered, the FBI's enthusiasm for starting investigations far outweighs its interest in ensuring they are justifiable. A site owner who forwarded an email containing a threat to hack his site was misinterpreted by an FBI agent to be a threat against the agency, kicking off (at least) six years of monitoring. Even as evidence failed to pile up, the investigation went continued unabated, ultimately costing the site owners' a chunk of income as donors scattered when news of the investigation became public.
Here's yet another example of the FBI's mentality at work -- seizing on anything as an excuse to dig into personal information. This particular person was Jill Kelley who, because of the FBI's actions, became part of the national sideshow involving General Petraeus' affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. On the advice of military officials, Kelley reported the suspected cyberstalking of her and her husband to the FBI. Apparently, the FBI felt this gave it free rein to invade Kelley's privacy.
We authorized the FBI to look at one threatening email we received, and only that email, so that the FBI could identify the stalker. However, the FBI ignored our request and violated our trust by unlawfully searching our private emails and turning us into the targets of an intrusive investigation without any just cause—all the while without informing us that they had identified the email stalker as Paula Broadwell, who was having an affair with Mr. Petraeus.It looks as if the FBI is way too willing to extend itself permissions that haven't been specifically granted. Maybe the investigating agents felt Kelley meant to give the agency carte blanche access to her and her husband's email accounts, but was unable to articulate her desire to have her privacy violated thanks to the stress she was under. Or something.
All of this and yet the FBI didn't feel compelled to apprise Kelley of the outcome of its intrusive investigation. (In the end, charges were dropped.) Rather, it opted to leak her information to the press and misconstrue the contents of certain emails it had obtained without permission, leaving she and her husband to deal with the resulting fallout (rumors of an affair, media campouts in Kelley's yard).
The resulting investigation by the military cleared her (and the general she was linked to by the FBI's perusal of her emails) of any impropriety but the damage was already done. The agency's decision to exceed its authorization has managed to turn another person into an advocate against its excesses.
It appears from the NSA's leaks that the government may be trying to collect everything about everyone and everywhere—including America's closest friends and allies—with or without the knowledge of the White House. Unaccountable individuals given free rein to invade people's privacy—and a government that maintains the tools that permit them to do so—are a prescription for a privacy disaster.Not only does this sort of behavior chill speech and make a mockery of the Fourth Amendment, it also makes the country -- and its citizens -- less safe. If people have to think twice before asking law enforcement or investigative agencies to look into possible criminal activity out of fear of having their own personal information sifted through or subjected to months of intrusive surveillance, they may opt to ignore the problem or take matters into their own hands. Either outcome is undesirable.
With all the current economic, political, social and diplomatic issues facing the country, it is understandable that many Americans seem relatively unconcerned about intrusions on individual privacy. They shouldn't be. The unauthorized search of my family's emails was triggered when we appealed to law enforcement for protection. But who knows what else might set off governmental invasion of privacy—politics or some other improper motivation might suffice. If this could happen to us, it could happen to you.
The NSA has made many placating statements about how it's limited by its authorizations, rather than its capabilities. These have never been particularly reassuring, and are even less so now, as its investigative counterpart appears more than willing to twist requests for help into invitations to snoop.