May 30, 2002


YOU ARE SPYING: Matt Drudge billed this Washington Post article as a civil liberties nightmare: "Department of Precrime: Government will ease limits on domestic spying."

Really? The new policy allows agents to search public places, which you'd think they could do anyway. In implying that churches, synagogues and mosques are public may it be setting a worrying precedent. Given how likely it is that terrorist plotting could be going on inside mosques, though, it seems like a it would simply be good enough to plan on re-evaluating the FBI's treatment of relgious sanctuaries somewhere down the road (in five years, say). But this is the real shocking part-- not because of what the new policy is, but what the old policy was:

The new rules will allow agents to surf the Internet for Web sites that might give hints to terrorist activity, according to the description. The new guidelines will allow investigators to seek out and "identify sites and forums in which bomb-making instructions, preparations for cyberterrorism, child pornography, and stolen credit card information are openly traded and disseminated."

Under the existing policy, agents could pursue online searches only when they could characterize them as checking leads or otherwise furthering an ongoing investigation.

"Pure surfing or searching for the purpose of initially developing leads was not allowed, even in relation to publicly available information that anyone else is free to access and observe," according to the new policy statement.

Agents will also be permitted to do topical research not directly related to a specific crime under the new guidelines, such as research on a biological agent.

Read that again. Until today, FBI agents were mostly not allowed to surf the Internet. This is like having a local cop not being allowed to patrol a neighborhood without getting a 911 call. We're not talking about private emails-- the Orwellian "Carnivore" system, which is supposed to do that, is constitutionally questionable and technically haywire (its glitches apparantly sent agents the emails of innocent people and not terrorists). We're talking about the Internet in general-- by the definition in Drudge's breathless headline, you are right now "spying" on me by reading my publicly posted thoughts.

Civil liberties are vitally important-- and crying wolf about imaginary threats does a major disservice to their protection.

Posted by John Tabin at May 30, 2002 10:53 AM