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Online Search Term Ends in Terrorism Task Force Searching Home

michele catalano

image credit washingtonpost.com

WASHINGTON – If you don’t want your home searched by members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, don’t conduct an Internet search for “pressure cookers” and “backpacks.”

That may be oversimplifying it, but a blog post Thursday by a national freelance writer revealed the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Americans’ Internet activity, which likely is far broader than was thought just months ago. Michele Catalano, a freelance writer for several publications and a former music contributor at Forbes, said her home was visited Wednesday by six members of the task force who were suspicious of the family’s Internet search history, which included “pressure cookers” and “backpacks” and a number of other words.

Catalano was not at home when the agents visited her husband around 9 a.m. local time.

“My husband … was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside,” Catalano wrote on her blog. “He looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving. Six gentleman in casual clothes emerged from the vehicles and spread out as they walked toward the house, two toward the backyard on one side, two on the other side, two toward the front door.”

Her husband walked outside, and the agents greeted him by flashing their badges. They asked if they could come in, and he complied. They then searched the house and the garage, asking him questions along the way.

“Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa.”

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They then asked the key question: “Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb?” The Boston bombers had used pressure cooker bombs placed in backpacks.

“My husband, ever the oppositional kind, asked them if they themselves weren’t curious as to how a pressure cooker bomb works, if they ever looked it up,” Catalano wrote. “Two of them admitted they did. By this point they had realized they were not dealing with terrorists. They asked my husband about his work, his visits to South Korea and China. The tone was conversational.”

The agents didn’t search the computers, didn’t open any drawers of cabinets and didn’t even go in two of the rooms. Still, the ordeal left Catalano feeling uneasy. After all, the agents said they conduct similar searched about 100 times a week, with 99 percent of those turning up nothing.

“This is where we are at. Where you have no expectation of privacy,” Catalano wrote. “Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list. Where you have to watch every little thing you do because someone else is watching every little thing you do. All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online. I’m scared. And not of the right things.”

As it turns out, the home search was the result of a search that Catalano’s husband had done at his former workplace and was reported to authorities. But Catalano’s blog post came the same week The Guardian newspaper published a story about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the NSA’s system for monitoring Internet traffic. Snowden – a whistleblower to some, a traitor to others — said NSA uses an Internet-monitoring system called “XKeyscore” that he said allows analysts to monitor everything about an individual’s web activity, including email content, and search and webpage history. It even allows a person’s activity to be monitored live. NSA says the goal is to find terrorists, but civil liberties groups say the system invades privacy and doesn’t have enough checks. The Guardian said a web search can be made without a court or any NSA personnel giving approval.

US Rep. Justin Amash, R.-Mich., said he believes former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is a whistleblower and not a traitor. When asked directly on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace if he considers Snowden to be a whistleblower, Amash said “yes.”

“I certainly think that without his doing what he did, members of Congress would not have really known about it,” Amash said. “… Of course, Congress passed the Patriot Act. They passed the FISA Amendments Act. But members of Congress were not really aware on the whole about what these programs were being used for, the extent to which they were being used. Members of the Intelligence Committee were told. But members who are rank and file members really didn’t have the information.”

“I, sitting at my desk,” Snowden told the Guardian in June, could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email”.

A new poll by Quinnipiac University showed that 55 percent of U.S. voters consider Snowden a whistleblower, 34 percent a traitor. It was conducted July 28-31 among 1,468 registered voters.

Michael V. Hayden, a former NSA and CIA director, appeared on Fox News opposite Amash and said he doesn’t consider Snowden to be a whistleblower.

“Look, a whistleblower is someone who raises concerns within our government in order to affect change,” Hayden said. “There is no evidence whatsoever that this young man warned anyone, went to his supervisor, his supervisor’s boss, even to the congressmen. No evidence of that whatsoever. … He told the world, including our enemies. And he’s made it more difficult for our security services to keep America safe.”

The NSA released a statement to the Guardian, saying XKeyscore is “used as a part of NSA’s lawful foreign signals intelligence collection system” and it does have checks, including audits.

“NSA’s activities are focused and specifically deployed against – and only against – legitimate foreign intelligence targets in response to requirements that our leaders need for information necessary to protect our nation and its interests,” NSA said.

NSA previously said it is collecting telephone “metadata” – that is, a grid of what numbers dial what numbers, although it said conversations are not monitored or recorded. NSA officials have acknowledged that – because of the scope of the data search – the records of millions of Americans can be searched. That’s because the agency digs into multiple layers of a person’s life. If it finds someone suspected of terrorism, NSA says it examines all the people a suspect calls, as well as the people those people call, all the people those people call, and all the people those people call. If each person in that chain has an average 40 contacts, it would add up to 2.5 million people, The Washington Post noted.

“If this program is not effective, it has to end,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., said during a Senate committee hearing in late July. “So far I’m not convinced by what I’ve seen.”

Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky told Democracy Now that Snowden’s “disclosures have changed the course of human history” for the better.

“His initial disclosures were a service to our country because now we’re having this conversation — and we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Massie said.

Amash was the author of a House amendment that was narrowly defeated (205-217) and would have de-funded the NSA’s surveillance program. Voting for the amendment were 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats.

Hayden defended the current NSA program.

“The metadata program that we are talking about here, isn’t about targeting Americans,” Hayden said. “It’s about trying to decide with the lightest touch possible who in America — legally, operationally, ethically — should be targeted for increased interest from the FBI or from our intelligence services.”

Amash disagreed, saying “you can’t have a perfect system” where the country is supposedly perfectly safe “unless you have people under constant lockdown being monitored.”

“And even in that system,” he said, “you have essentially a police state, and I think you’ve run the risk of having a much more dangerous society. … As to whether Americans’ privacies are being violated, just ask my constituents. If I go to a town hall or meeting, they will tell you that their privacy is being violated.”

Amash also said the NSA is violating the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from “unreasonable searches” and says the “right of the people to be secure” in their houses “shall not be violated” unless there is probable cause to do so.

“The framers of the Constitution put it in place, precisely because they were worried you’d have national security justifications for violating people’s rights,” Amash said. “They weren’t worried that the government was going to say, ‘Well, we want to come to your home to host a nice dinner party or we want your papers because we want to find some recipes.’ They are worried about national security justifications for violating peoples’ rights and in a dangerous world, you need the Fourth Amendment. You need the Constitution.”

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