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Context of 'June 5, 2006: Former Justice Department Official Argues Data Mining is Not Electronic Surveillance'

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The White House and the Justice Department are at odds over the legality of the National Security Agency’s “data mining” program, which involves the NSA combing through enormous electronic databases containing personal information about millions of US citizens, ostensibly for anti-terrorism purposes and often without court warrants (see February 2001, Spring 2001, After September 11, 2001, After September 11, 2001, October 2001, and Early 2002). Such data mining by the NSA potentially threatens citizens’ constitutional right to privacy. This clash between the White House and the Justice Department is one of the reasons that White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and chief of staff Andrew Card will try to pressure Attorney General John Ashcroft, while Ashcroft is recuperating from surgery, to reauthorize the NSA program over the objections of Deputy Attorney General James Comey. That attempt to force reauthorization over Justice Department complaints will result in the protest resignations of Ashcroft, Comey, and other Justice officials (see March 10-12, 2004). In 2007, Gonzales will deny that any such attempt to pressure Ashcroft to overrule Comey ever happened (see July 24, 2007), and will deny that there was any such dispute between the White House and Justice Department over the NSA program. Those denials will lead to calls to investigate Gonzales for perjury (see May 16, 2007). In late 2005, President Bush will admit, after the New York Times reveals the existence of the NSA warrantless wiretapping program (see Early 2002), that the program indeed exists, but will not acknowledge the data mining. Several current and former administration officials, interviewed by reporters in 2007, refuse to go into detail about the dispute between the White House and Justice Department, but say that it involves other issues along with the data mining. They will also refuse to explain what modifications to the surveillance program Bush will authorize to mollify Justice Department officials. Bush and his officials, including Gonzales, who will ascend to the position of attorney general in 2005, will repeatedly insist that he has the authority, both under the Constitution and under Congress’s authorization to use military force against terrorists passed after the 9/11 attacks (see September 14-18, 2001), to bypass the requirements for court warrants to monitor US citizens. Critics will say that such surveillance is illegal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. [New York Times, 7/29/2007]
Domestic Surveillance Began Before 9/11? - Though Bush officials eventually admit to beginning surveillance of US citizens only after the 9/11 attacks, that assertion is disputed by evidence suggesting that the domestic surveillance program began well before 9/11 (see Late 1999, February 27, 2000, December 2000, February 2001, February 2001, Spring 2001, July 2001, and Early 2002).

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, National Security Agency, New York Times, James B. Comey Jr., Alberto R. Gonzales, Andrew Card, Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

George Terwilliger, a former deputy attorney general under George H. W. Bush, argues that the current Bush administration’s controversial data mining program (see Late 1999 and After September 11, 2001) is not illegal. Terwilliger tells the conservative National Review, “I think it’s fair to say that the statutes contemplate the transfer of this generic type of data much more on a case-by-case rather than a wholesale basis,” meaning that the law calls for a court order only in cases when the government is making a targeted request for information. But, he adds, “I don’t see anything in the statute that forbids such a wholesale turnover.” Terwilliger’s argument echoes the arguments of the Bush Justice Department, which argues that the data mining program—part of the NSA’s “Stellar Wind” surveillance program (see Spring 2004 and December 15, 2005)—does not technically constitute “electronic surveillance” under the law. Both the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, as interpreted by the courts, define such actions as “electronic surveillance,” according to a number of legal experts, including law professor Orin Kerr. And, Ars Technica reporter Julian Sanchez notes in 2009, “the Stored Communications Act explicitly makes it a crime to ‘knowingly divulge a record or other information pertaining to a subscriber to or customer of such service… to any governmental entity.’” Sanchez will call Terwilliger’s argument “very strange,” but will note that Terwilliger is the attorney for then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and “a prominent defender of the administration’s surveillance policies.” Sanchez will conclude that while the argument “might pass for clever in a high school debate round… [i]t would be deeply unsettling if it [passes] for anything more in the halls of power.” [National Review, 6/5/2006; Ars Technica, 12/16/2008]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Alberto R. Gonzales, ’Stellar Wind’, Bush administration (43), National Security Agency, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Julian Sanchez, George Terwilliger, Orin S. Kerr

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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