- - Thursday, February 27, 2014

It’s harder by the day to credit the defenders of domestic surveillance. They insist NSA spies are only doing what’s necessary to thwart the evil schemes of terrorists. The document collection leaked by Edward J. Snowden consistently undermines the pretty narrative that insists, “Trust us, we’re spying for your own good.” New files released by NBC News show that some snooping agencies are more obsessed with naughty teenagers than terrorists.

Britain’s equivalent of the National Security Agency, GCHQ, mounted sophisticated “covert actions” to deceive and disrupt a group of online malcontents who called themselves “Anonymous.” The loosely knit group is best known for shutting down websites as a political statement. It rendered the online home of the Westboro Baptist Church, so called, as useless and unusable as Healthcare.gov. Anonymous also went after MasterCard and Visa when those financial firms refused to process donations to WikiLeaks.

A handful of Anonymous members responsible for various “cyber-attacks” have been caught and convicted of computer crimes. They’re mostly teenagers who cause annoyance, as teenagers everywhere can, and, on occasion, they cause financial loss. But they’re a physical threat to nobody. They’re not terrorists.

“The Art of Deception” training document details the extremes to which British spies will go to thwart antsy teens. “False flag” operations published salacious material under the Anonymous banner to discredit the group. London used a “honey trap” like those sprung by Delilah, Jezebel and Mata Hari. New tricks include these suggestions: “Write a blog purporting to be one of their victims,” “Leak confidential information to companies / the press” and “Stop deals / ruin business relationships.” Government agents distributed computer viruses and performed “denial of service” attacks against their targets.

The British government has thus engaged in precisely the conduct as the suspects. GCHQ, and perhaps also the NSA, are going after people who have not even been accused of crimes, pursued with dirty tricks meant to ruin relationships, manipulate the organs of the media and spread propaganda. It’s a chilling thought that government agencies operating without real oversight would poison the public discourse in this way.

It gets considerably worse. Another set of documents describe how GCHQ amassed the world’s largest pornography collection. This agency of voyeurs intercepts conversations whenever someone in the United States, England or elsewhere uses Yahoo’s video chat service. GCHQ takes regular snapshots of all participants, gathering millions upon millions of images with hopes of spotting Ayman al-Zawahiri phoning in the coordinates for a terrorist strike. What the program actually collects 7 percent of the time, by the agency’s own review, is “undesirable nudity.”

The agency takes note of how tempting it might be for agents to pass around these naughty snapshots, perhaps even to use them in a campaign of intimidation and deception. It reminds agents that “the dissemination of offensive material is a disciplinary offense.” That is precisely the problem. Conversations between honest, law-abiding citizens must be protected from warrantless intrusion by more than the threat of a nasty note in a personnel folder. The bureaucrats who abuse this unprecedented power belong in jail.

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