Surprise! You’ve Been XKeyscored!
Long Island home invasion by US govt agents provoked by "suspicious" Google searches
The news that Edward Snowden has – finally – been granted political asylum in Russia has provoked the Usual Suspects into bloviating the Usual Nonsense: Gee, how come Snowden didn’t go to a “free” country, you know, just like America? Instead, he’s gone to Russia, where the secret police are watching you 24/7 and the cops can burst into your home without a warrant at any time. You know, kinda like this:
"It was a confluence of magnificent proportions that led six agents from the joint terrorism task force to knock on my door Wednesday morning. Little did we know our seemingly innocent, if curious to a fault, Googling of certain things was creating a perfect storm of terrorism profiling. Because somewhere out there, someone was watching. Someone whose job it is to piece together the things people do on the Internet raised the red flag when they saw our search history."
Michele Catalano, of Long Island, New York, was at work yesterday [Wednesday] when the "joint terrorism task force" showed up at her door:
"At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. 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…."
All were armed:
"’Are you [name redacted]?’ one asked while glancing at a clipboard. He affirmed that was indeed him, and was asked if they could come in. Sure, he said.
"They asked if they could search the house, though it turned out to be just a cursory search. They walked around the living room, studied the books on the shelf (nope, no bomb making books, no Anarchist Cookbook), looked at all our pictures, glanced into our bedroom, pet our dogs. They asked if they could go in my son’s bedroom but when my husband said my son was sleeping in there, they let it be.
"Meanwhile, they were peppering my husband with questions. 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. What the hell is quinoa, they asked."
It soon became clear this visit was provoked by what the Catalano family had been Googling: pressure cookers (Michele Catalano wants to buy one), backpacks (her husband is looking for one), and the avid curiosity of their news junkie teenage son, who had been reading online about the Boston terrorist attacks. This was confirmed by the conversation between Mr. Catalano and the cops:
"Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb? 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. 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."
How did they know Michele had been Googling "pressure cooker"? How did they know he’d been Googling “backpack” and about his visits to South Korea and China? The answer is staring us in the face: when the National Security Agency claims not to be spying on Americans, insisting they only surveil those Americans in contact with "foreign terrorists," they are lying – and here is the proof.
It has often been remarked that the events surrounding this entire Snowden episode have the look and feel of a novel: that the raid on the Catalano home occurred on the very day of Glenn Greenwald’s exposure of "XKeyscore," described by the NSA itself as its "widest reaching" spying tool, is yet another of increasingly numerous examples of life imitating art. As Greenwald reports:
"A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden."
XKeyscore sweeps up everything: emails, browsing history, metadata, social media activity: and, contrary to the lies being circulated by the administration and its defenders, no foreign connection is required, as the Catalano family’s scary experience demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt. As Greenwald points out:
"Under US law, the NSA is required to obtain an individualized FISA warrant only if the target of their surveillance is a ‘US person’, though no such warrant is required for intercepting the communications of Americans with foreign targets. But XKeyscore provides the technological capability, if not the legal authority, to target even US persons for extensive electronic surveillance without a warrant provided that some identifying information, such as their email or IP address, is known to the analyst."
That capability was exercised in the case of the Catalanos – they were XKeyscored, so to speak, apparently with full "legal authority." (Perhaps this hints at the government’s secret interpretation of the Patriot Act, which Sen. Ron Wyden says would horrify us.)
As Greenwald has been saying throughout this whole debate, the alleged legal necessity of a "foreign" connection, in practice, is so vague as to be meaningless. What was the "foreign" connection in the Catalanos’ case? The fact that Mr. Catalano had traveled overseas? That puts him in the same category as millions of Americans.
To add the requisite Keystone Kops aspect to this incident – after all, we’re talking about a US government agency here – Michele Catalano writes that the "suspicious" Google searches took place "weeks ago," adding "I don’t know what took them so long to get here." Well, I know what took them so long, and so does any libertarian – or any intelligent person who’s been paying attention since our national nightmare began – but let’s not go there now.
The important point is that, however inefficiently and even absurdly they may be going about it, our rulers are turning the US into a hi-tech version of North Korea. Overstatement? I wish. "They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week," Catalano continues, "and that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing."
One hundred times a week? Really? That can’t be true – can it? What’s scary is that I believe it.
From what I can tell, the Catalanos live right on the border of Rep. Peter King’s district – King (R-IRA) has been a caustic critic of the libertarian anti-NSA wing of his party. The other day he ranted:
"When you have Rand Paul actually comparing Snowden to Martin Luther King or Henry David Thoreau, this is madness, this is the anti-war Democrats in the 1960s that destroyed their party for almost 15 years. I don’t want that happening to our party. I thought it was absolutely disgraceful that so many Republicans voted to defund the NSA program, which has done so much to protect our country."
If what happened to the Catalano family has been accurately reported, then yes, this is indeed madness, albeit not in the way King intends. Local police are denying it: the Gothamist, in its quest for acknowledgment of the raid by authorities, reports "a press rep for the FBI in NYC said Nassau County was involved, ‘[S]o I have to go up the chain to bigger people.’" The Guardian puzzles:
"It was unclear on Thursday precisely who had visited Catalano. The FBI told the Guardian that she was visited by the Nassau County police department ‘working in conjunction with Suffolk County police department.’
“‘From our understanding, both of those counties are involved,’ said FBI spokeswoman Kelly Langmesser. She said Suffolk County initiated the action and that Nassau County became involved, but would not elaborate on what that meant.
"The Suffolk County police department directed inquiries back to the FBI.
"The Nassau County police department said Catalano ‘was not visited by the Nassau police department’ and denied involvement in the situation.’"
They’re passing this burning coal around so fast it’s giving me a headache, which is one reason why I believe every word Michele Catalano has written about this shocking home invasion by government agents.
As the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force rampages across Long Island, carrying out these raids 100 times a week, it won’t be long before they show up in Rep. King’s district. In that case, he may have some ‘splaining to do.
The knock on the door in the night – that has always been the emblematic image that flashes before our eyes when we think of totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union, and, today, North Korea or Cuba.
Is this what we’ve come to?
UPDATE: The Suffolk county police are now saying the visit to the Catalanos was provoked by “a tip from a Bay Shore based computer company regarding suspicious computer searches conducted by a recently released employee. The former employee’s computer searches took place on this employee’s workplace computer. On that computer, the employee searched the terms ‘pressure cooker bombs’ and ‘backpacks.’” The police statement goes on to say:
“After interviewing the company representatives, Suffolk County Police Detectives visited the subject’s home to ask about the suspicious internet searches. The incident was investigated by Suffolk County Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Detectives and was determined to be non-criminal in nature.”
It would be wrong to assume this wasn’t coordinated with intelligence gleaned from XKeyscore or similar NSA surveillance programs: It’s quite likely the Catalanos did the same sort of searches on their home computer. They don’t send out the FBI’s JTTF, or even deputized local law enforcement, just because someone who hates you at your former job is engaged in some weird vendetta. There must have been some corroborating “evidence” that brought the feds – or whoever they were – to the Catalanos’ door. If anything, this update paints this home invasion in an even more sinister light: it’s the inevitable result of the “if you see something, say something” campaign started by Janet Napolitano, combined with what Snowden calls the “architecture of oppression.”
It is, in short, our national nightmare – one that shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
UPDATE 2: Michele Catalano has issued a clarification, which reads in part:
"We found out through the Suffolk Police Department that the searches involved also things my husband looked up at his old job. We were not made aware of this at the time of questioning and were led to believe it was solely from searches from within our house."
The key word here, of course, is "also."
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.
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- Obama Stands Up for America – March 22nd, 2015
- Netanyahu, the George Wallace of the Middle East – March 19th, 2015