Newly revealed documents tie the Pentagon to widespread warrantless surveillance of US citizens and non-citizen residents, a major threat to constitutional rights, says Sarah St. Vincent of Human Rights Watch
AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Human Rights Watch has obtained documents that tie the Pentagon to potential widespread, warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens and non-citizen residents. The documents include presentation slides for in-house trainings, which allow Pentagon intelligence officials a broad scope to monitor U.S. citizens whom the government regards as “home-grown violent extremists,” even when they have no specific connection to foreign terrorists. Human Rights Watch says it’s particularly concerned that “people who are exercising their legitimate, free-expression rights will be targeted for monitoring in a discriminatory or arbitrary manner.” Sarah St. Vincent is a researcher and advocate on national security, surveillance, and domestic law enforcement for Human Rights Watch. She joins me now. Sarah, welcome. If you could detail for us how you obtained these documents, and the most important content, in your view, of what they say. S. ST. VINCENT: Sure. We obtained the documents through a freedom … Excuse me, freedom of information, or FOI, request that we submitted in January of this year. We were actually looking for something quite different. We were looking for information about how and whether the government uses warrantless intelligence surveillance to search for evidence of drug or immigration offenses. And so we had submitted a request to about 22 different agencies, many of those are still pending, but one of the ones that got back to us was the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. They sent us these training slides, and as I worked my way through the slides, I realized that there was information in there about a particular U.S. surveillance authority that is … It’s a potentially enormous authority, but none of us knows very much about it. And so I had the chance to sort of dig into that, and that’s when we came across this problem about home-grown violent extremists, so-called. AARON MATÉ: The slides contain a training guideline for Pentagon employees, which specify who can be surveilled and who can’t, for people who can be spied by the Pentagon. It includes members of the military, and it also includes non-U.S. residents. So, where from that can we glean that it actually opens up the way for the Pentagon to spy on U.S. citizens? S. ST. VINCENT: Actually, because the training slides tell us so. The training slides refer back to this manual that the government put out to interpret it and basically tell members of the Defense Department how to apply this warrantless surveillance authority that I mentioned. It’s called the Executive Order 12-333. It was issued during the Reagan era, and again, outside of government, most of us know very little about it. It’s actually the authority for the majority of what the NSA does, as we know from the Snowden documents. The Defense Department had issued a revised version of this manual for how they are going to apply this big shadowy surveillance authority in August of 2016, and the training slides basically interpret that new manual and say to the trainees, “Here’s how you should apply this,” and in doing so, they basically put a bunch of things into plain English that are not very clear from the base of the manual, and in doing that, they highlight the fact that the manual does say the Defense Department can intentionally spy on what are called “U.S. persons, U.S. citizens, or Green Card holders” under a certain set of circumstances. One of those circumstances is for “counterintelligence purposes,” and the slides interpret part of that definition to say, “Okay, what we mean by this bunch of largely legalese is the so-called homegrown violent extremists,” and that was all not at all clear from the surface of the manual, or from the text of the order that I just mentioned. AARON MATÉ: And how are homegrown violent extremists defined? S. ST. VINCENT: We have no idea. We asked the Defense Department, actually, a series of questions, and to their credit, they were willing to have a number of on-the-record conversations with us. They were able to discuss these things to a pretty good extent. However, we asked them, “What criteria … who counts as a homegrown violent extremist? What criteria do you use to decide whether somebody falls into that category?” And they didn’t answer that, which is part of what raises our concerns. AARON MATÉ: So, who do you worry might be targeted as a result of this broad leeway? S. ST. VINCENT: I wouldn’t want to speculate, but I think that it’s potentially significant that the training slides refer to the San Bernardino and Orlando shooters, which suggests to me a potential focus on Muslims. But I think what we should all really focus on is this idea that … Homegrown violent extremists, when you don’t have a definition, or you don’t have criteria, I think there’s a real danger that that could be applied to a really wide spectrum of people who are potentially just expressing their political opinions or their religious views, and for whom there is no, as we say in the criminal justice field, “probable cause” to believe they’re going to commit a crime or engage in an act of violence. I think that when the focus is on this so-called “extremism,” that is to say, apparently, the beliefs, that you risk having people get caught in a dragnet who really don’t belong there. AARON MATÉ: You know, according to U.S. law going back to the 19th century, the U.S. military is not supposed to be engaged in domestic law enforcement activities. So, how does this surveillance square with that? S. ST. VINCENT: You’re referring to something called the Posse Comitatus Act. There have been a number of carve-outs to the Posse Comitatus Act over the years. [inaudible 00:05:48], I would say, is probably not the expert in that particular law, but certainly the documents we found do raise lots of questions, such as, why does the government think that it’s allowed to use, again, this sort of shadowy intelligence surveillance authority to spy on people in some unknown way, based on some unknown criteria, even when they have no specific connection to a foreign terrorist group, or a foreign spy organization, or something of that nature? I think that the government’s legal basis for doing this is very unclear, and it’s something that should be revealed. AARON MATÉ: Finally, Sarah, let me ask you, since this news is just breaking today. Both Senator John McCain and apparently now President Trump have floated the idea of moving the suspect in the attack in New York yesterday, the car running over seven or eight people, I believe the figure is … Calling for that suspect to be moved to Guantanamo Bay. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that. S. ST. VINCENT: Well, I can tell you that Human Rights Watch would be opposed to that. That’s not actually my own area of expertise, but certainly we have long-standing, well-documented objections to Guantanamo Bay and the way that processes are run there. AARON MATÉ: And quickly, your recommendations to the government, in terms of what should be done with this broad surveillance power that they seem to have given themselves, or given to the Pentagon? S. ST. VINCENT: First, the public needs and deserves to know a lot more information. I mean, this is a democracy. The government ought to have an obligation to tell its own population, the people from whom it derives its power, when it thinks it can spy on them, and when it thinks it can’t. And so, this idea that you could have this potentially gigantic surveillance authority that, again, no member of the public outside of government really understands very well, as far as I know, that Congress apparently exercises very little oversight over, that the courts exercise no oversight over, you really, really need to have the government disclosing what it thinks it can do, why, and when, and it hasn’t been doing that. I think that it’s really incumbent upon it to do that, and also incumbent upon Congress to be asking hard questions. What are they doing? What kind of spying are we talking about? Who counts as a homegrown violent extremist? How are they identifying these people? Not just the criteria that they’re using, but what are the technical means? Are they going off tips from humans? Are they going off of something else? In some ways, the slides that we were given raised many more questions than they answer, but they are very, very serious questions. AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Sarah St. Vincent of Human Rights Watch, thank you. S. ST. VINCENT: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.