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In midst of FISA showdown, NYT reveals more surveillance screw-ups
Nick Juliano
Published: Monday February 18, 2008

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As President Bush continues to demand legal immunity for telecommunications companies accused of violating customers' privacy, the government and its private-sector facilitators are reported to "regular[ly] foul up" surveillance orders and filter untold numbers of innocent Americans' communications into government computers.

Because of an "apparent miscommunication" between the FBI and a private internet provider, e-mail messages across an entire computer network were collected by the government, reports the New York Times's Eric Lichtblau, who first uncovered the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program.

E-mails from "perhaps hundreds of accounts or more" were sucked into FBI computers, Lichtblau reports, "instead of simply the lone e-mail address that was approved by a secret intelligence court as part of a national security investigation, according to a internal report of the 2006 episode."

"The episode is an unusual example of what has become a regular if little-noticed occurrence, as American officials have expanded their technological tools: government officials, or the private companies they rely on for surveillance operations, sometimes foul up their instructions about what they can and cannot collect," the Times scribe writes.

The inadvertently collected e-mail was revealed in Sunday's Times, just 24 hours after the expiration of a temporary expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. President Bush and his GOP allies in Congress ramped up their rhetoric warning that if he didn't get everything he wanted on FISA, the country would be in danger.

For example, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Southern California Republican, told his hometown newspaper:

"Just think about shutting down the interceptions because of some misplaced notion about protecting American rights and we end up with families being murdered at Disneyland because some messages weren't intercepted."

The idea that surveillance of terrorists would end is ridiculous, critics say, because any wiretaps currently running could continue for at least another six months and any new surveillance simply needs to go before the FISA court.

Democrats have refused to blink in their showdown over FISA, accusing the Republican Party of dredging up frightening images and fierce rhetoric to obscure the issue at hand: whether President Bush's extra-judicial authorization of secret spying on Americans was illegal and whether telephone and internet companies threw their customers' rights out the window in pursuit of lucrative government contracts.

Lichtbau's report shows there might be reason to pause before permanently enshrining the president's expanded power without knowing how many Americans have been innocently swept up. But he notes lawmakers haven't paid the concerns much notice.

"The problem has received no discussion as part of the fierce debate in Congress about whether to expand the governmentís wiretapping authorities and give legal immunity to private telecommunications companies that have helped in those operations," he writes.

"But an intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because surveillance operations are classified, said: 'Itís inevitable that these things will happen. Itís not weekly, but itís common.'Ē