Inspectors General Release Report on Secret Surveillance Programs

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July 15, 2009

A July 2009 report by five agency Inspectors Generals puts the spotlight on another "anti-terrorism" measure that fails to augment national security but infringes on civil liberties. Without identifying any specific activities, the unclassified report refers to "Presidential Surveillance Programs" (PSP) authorized by the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. The report describes "conflicting views surrounding the legality" of parts of the PSP and questions the benefits received from the information collected. Authorized by the 2008 FISA Amendment Act (FAA), the report also divulges the Bush White House politicizing the "threat assessment" that it had used as the basis for the domestic surveillance programs. 

In the report, the Inspectors General from Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Justice (DOJ), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) called the arrangements that excluded all but three Justice lawyers from knowing of the PSP "extraordinary and inappropriate." The secrecy surrounding PSP was furthered demonstrated during the creation of the "threat assessment memoranda." After terrorism analysts had completed their intelligence examination, a "senior White House official" added text to their appraisal that suggested possible threats from "individuals and organizations involved in global terrorism" and a recommendation authorizing "the NSA to conduct surveillance activities under the PSP." If the analysis had shown insufficient evidence of threats or lacked a "compelling case for reauthorization of PSP", the continuation of PSP would have been in jeopardy.

FBI, CIA and other officials "had difficulty evaluating the precise contribution of the PSP to counterterrorism efforts." An examination of the "impact of PSP information" revealed most data collected was on the periphery of investigations as "one source among many available analytic and intelligence gathering tools" and not the primary source for key anti-terrorism intelligence. The report also called for the data collected by PSP to be "carefully monitored."

According to ACLU Legislative Counsel, Michelle Richardson, "Giving up the Fourth Amendment for an ineffective program is a double slap in the face of Americans."  The ACLU press release highlighted several issues raised by the report including:

  • Information derived from the PSP was “vague or without context,” leading analysts to rely on more useful tools (p.34);
  • Agencies generally have no meaningful way to tag what information they used, and possibly are still using, that was collected under the illegal program as opposed to information collected by lawful means (pps. 32-35);

Richardson added, "We already know that the NSA has overstepped the overbroad bounds of the FISA Amendments Act, and it's time for Congress to take a thorough look at the surveillance powers it's handed our government."  

House Democrats are in favor of legislation that increases congressional access to secret intelligence briefings. The White House has not expressed support for additional Congressional oversight.