Warrantless Spying on Pro-Palestine Protesters Is Easier Than Ever

The NSA and CIA's warrantless searches of U.S. metadata, made possible by the just-renewed Section 702, rose 129 percent last year, U.S. intelligence just disclosed.

Warrantless Spying on Pro-Palestine Protesters Is Easier Than Ever
Fig. 7 from ASTR Regarding the IC Use of National Security Surveillance Authorities for 2023

The NSA and CIA's warrantless searches of U.S. metadata, made possible by the just-renewed Section 702, rose 129 percent last year, U.S. intelligence just disclosed. 

Edited by Sam Thielman

Ten days after President Biden signed into law yet another reauthorization of Section 702 mass surveillance, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealed something important about the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, Section 702 and your metadata. The NSA and the CIA's warrantless searches through the Section 702 trove for metadata "concerning a known U.S. person" rose from an estimated 3,656 searches in 2022 to 8,358 in 2023. That's an eye-popping 129 percent increase.

You can find that statistic on page 22 of the Annual Statistical Transparency Report (ASTR) Regarding the Intelligence Community’s (IC) Use of National Security Surveillance Authorities for Calendar Year 2023, released yesterday. Metadata doesn't include the content of communications, but rather information about who sent what to whom when and similar data that establishes webs of association, something deeply valuable to intelligence agencies.

Search tallies are not the same as saying 8,358 people had metadata "concerning" them searched, since a search may involve multiple people or companies or entities. Surveillance opacity is designed to produce imprecision. But at a moment of accelerating domestic suppression of outrage over U.S. complicity in Israel's destruction of Gaza, what matters is that NSA and CIA use of the so-called "backdoor search provision"—a search that requires no warrant through troves of ostensibly foreign-focused intelligence that was collected warrantlessly—is up. Way up. 

By contrast, the FBI, continuing a recent trend, is way down on its backdoor searches, although those searches occurred last year at a much higher volume than the NSA and CIA ones. No cookie for the bureau, though, since recall that last year we learned from a judge on the secret surveillance panel known as the FISA Court that FBI drops in backdoor searches correlate with… requirements for the FBI to document those searches. But FBI backdoor searches still totalled 57,094 from November 2022 to December 2023. (As you'll see when you CTL+F the report for the words "batch jobs," the FBI queries also can involve multiple-person searches, so the FBI figure similarly does not shake out to 57,094 Americans whose metadata the FBI found a way around constitutional and judicial requirements to access.)

Expect these authorities to be used against many kinds of people. Among the targets will be U.S. supporters of Palestine. As the Section 702 renewal neared the finish line, the umbrella Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which on Sunday demanded that "order on our campuses… be restored immediately," urged its passage in a letter to 702 supporters Rep. Mike Johnson, the GOP House speaker, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic House leader. As I've reported for The Nation, shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks, the ADL began pushing for investigations of campus and other pro-Palestine organizations for material support for terrorism despite lacking any factual predicate beyond rhetoric. 

Last night's NYPD raids and arrests of 282 peaceful protesters occupying buildings at Columbia and City College are only one way of suppressing such perspectives. Mayor Eric Adams' baseless and historically ugly assertion of "outside agitators" among the students can be manufactured through the powers granted by Section 702.

As well, the renewal in April of Section 702 vastly expands, for two years, the surveillance powers granted to U.S. intelligence agencies. "If you have access to any communications, the government can force you to help it spy. That means anyone with access to a server, a wire, a cable box, a wifi router, a phone, or a computer. Think about the millions of Americans who work in buildings and offices in which communications are stored or pass through," warned Sen. Ron Wyden, who sits on the intelligence committee, shortly before the bill passed. 

FOREVER WARS wrote last week about the unmistakable lust for violence against the student protesters in the corridors of power. After last night's police raids, there can really be no doubt. And the surveillance apparatus built by the War on Terror, and revitalized just last month, is here to help that lust manifest.

FOREVER WARS FRIEND DARRYL LI has a fantastic piece about seeing contemporary imperialism through the career of the humble 155mm artillery shell. This is the national-security essay version of "I Gave You Power" by Nas.

LISTENING AND WATCHING last night as the police broke up (for now) the student demonstrations at Columbia and CCNY was bleak. I should maybe leave it at that. Click through to Max Rivlin-Nadler's Hell Gate report from CCNY, which the scene at Columbia has to a degree eclipsed. I was chilled to read the Columbia president, Minouche Shafik, write that "the safety and security of our community is our highest priority, especially for our students" to justify requesting an absolute swarm of police—police who were last seen admitting the protests were peaceful

Very soon Columbia will be the venue for announcing the Pulitzer Prizes. I say this as a 2014 recipient: If you are awarded journalism's highest honor, congratulations, and please use your platform to speak out against what Columbia and other institutions of higher learning are doing to their own students. Speak out against the official and media portrayals of these nonviolent students, many of whom are Jewish, as an antisemitic mob. This is what journalism is supposed to be for, after all.

AMOS GOLDBERG IS A GENOCIDE SCHOLAR AT HEBREW UNIVERSITY. "What is happening in Gaza is genocide because the level and pace of indiscriminate killing, destruction, mass expulsions, displacement, famine, executions, the wiping out of cultural and religious institutions, the crushing of elites (including the killing of journalists), and the sweeping dehumanisation of the Palestinians — create an overall picture of genocide, of a deliberate conscious crushing of Palestinian existence in Gaza," he writes in a wrenching piece that is worth your time. 

WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, the superhero spy thriller I co-wrote with my friend Evan Narcisse and which the masterful Jesús Merino illustrated, is available for purchase in a hardcover edition! If you don't have single issues of WVW and you want a four-issue set signed by me, they're going fast at Bulletproof Comics

No one is prouder of WVW than her older sibling, REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP, which is available now in hardcover, softcover, audiobook and Kindle edition. And on the way is a new addition to the family: THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN