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Is God a Civil Libertarian? How the American Surveillance State Devoured General Petraeus

That the stars of America's national security establishment are being devoured by out-of-control surveillance is a form of sweet justice.

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[The New York Times this morning  reports that the FBI claims the emails contained references to parts of Petraeus' schedule that were not publicly disclosed, though as  Marcy Wheeler documents, the way the investigation proceeded strongly suggests that at least the initial impetus behind it was a desire to settle personal scores.]

What is most striking is how  sweeping, probing and invasive the FBI's investigation then became, all without any evidence of any actual crime - or the need for any search warrant:

"Because the sender's account had been registered anonymously, investigators had to use forensic techniques - including a check of what other e-mail accounts had been accessed from the same computer address - to identify who was writing the e-mails.

"Eventually they identified Ms. Broadwell as a prime suspect and obtained access to her regular e-mail account. In its in-box, they discovered intimate and sexually explicit e-mails from another account that also was not immediately identifiable. Investigators eventually ascertained that it belonged to Mr. Petraeus and studied the possibility that someone had hacked into Mr. Petraeus's account or was posing as him to send the explicit messages."

So all based on a handful of rather unremarkable emails sent to a woman fortunate enough to have a friend at the FBI, the FBI traced all of Broadwell's physical locations, learned of all the accounts she uses, ended up reading all of her emails, investigated the identity of her anonymous lover (who turned out to be Petraeus), and then possibly read his emails as well. They dug around in all of this without any evidence of any real crime - at most, they had a case of "cyber-harassment" more benign than what regularly appears in my email inbox and that of countless of other people - and, in large part,  without the need for any warrant from a court.

But that isn't all the FBI learned. It was  revealed this morning that they also discovered "alleged inappropriate communication" to Kelley from Gen. Allen, who is not only the top commander in Afghanistan but was also just nominated by President Obama to be the Commander of US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe (a nomination now "on hold"). Here, according to Reuters, is what the snooping FBI agents obtained about that [emphasis added]:

"The U.S. official said the FBI uncovered between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of communications - mostly emails spanning from 2010 to 2012 - between Allen and Jill Kelley . . . .

"Asked whether there was concern about the disclosure of classified information, the official said, on condition of anonymity: 'We are concerned about inappropriate communications. We are not going to speculate as to what is contained in these documents.'"

So not only did the FBI - again, all without any real evidence of a crime - trace the locations and identity of Broadwell and Petreaus, and read through Broadwell's emails (and possibly Petraeus'), but they also got their hands on and read through 20,000-30,000 pages of emails between Gen. Allen and Kelley.

This is a surveillance state run amok. It also highlights how any remnants of internet anonymity have been all but obliterated by the union between the state and technology companies.

But, as unwarranted and invasive as this all is, there is some sweet justice in having the stars of America's national security state destroyed by the very surveillance system which they implemented and over which they preside. As Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation  put it this morning: "Who knew the key to stopping the Surveillance State was to just wait until it got so big that it ate itself?"

 
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