Toxic stuff

Benjamin Wittes says this collecting intel on journalists caper is stupid.

… contemplating the Washington Post’s revelation that the Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis (DHS I&A) issued two intelligence reports about tweets I had written, I can’t help but think that this is what J. Edgar Hoover’s abuses of power might have looked like had Twitter existed in Hoover’s time—and had Hoover been a total idiot.

On the one hand, DHS I&A was preparing intelligence reports on American journalists—on me and on Mike Baker of the New York Times—based on activity indisputably protected by the First Amendment: reporting unclassified information about the conduct of government. That’s toxic stuff. And DHS knows it. No sooner had the redoubtable Shane Harris published the story in the Post than DHS declared that Acting Secretary Chad Wolf was stopping the activity in question and initiating an investigation…

Because shocked shocked.

On the other hand, the collection and reporting on me is so trivial—and so dumb—that it can be hard to stop giggling and see the menace. Consider, DHS issued two intelligence reports, noting the shocking fact that I had tweeted things, a fact evident to all of my Twitter followers. The reports added no analysis of any kind. They didn’t mention what this had to do with anything a law enforcement or intelligence officer might find important. If this is Big Brother, he’s not all that impressive.

Ok but it’s hard to see everything relevant on Twitter so the intelligence reports were just to help the busy people at DHS who might have missed those particular tweets. Those tweets which must have been very sinister or why bother to collect and share them? Right?

Wittes says if they’d just passed them around then sure.

… had the author of these reports merely sent around an email to colleagues saying, “Hey look, @benjaminwittes just posted an internal document”—which is really all these reports say—I would not be remotely concerned about it. Indeed, the first of the two tweets reports on a document that more or less does exactly that in noting that I had published leaked information. Similarly, had someone written to the DHS inspector general asking for a leak investigation based on the tweets, that would have seemed entirely sensible too. Had people shared the tweets socially or professionally within the government, that also would have been fine.

But the idea that this is useful open source intelligence is just goofy, and the gussying up of a tweet available to hundreds of thousands of people into an intelligence “source” is like an intelligence agency playing dress-up.

Well everybody needs a hobby.

In the wake of Harris’s story, I received any number of communications from intelligence professionals—many of them indignant on my behalf, but all of them befuddled by what kind of clown show DHS I&A was running for someone to think such an intelligence report would be useful.

Well it’s…you know…background. Isn’t that useful? Kind of?

But if the details of the incidents all render them trivial, even laughable, there is a serious side here too. The government isn’t supposed to be gathering, reporting, and disseminating intelligence on U.S. persons without some clear factual predicate for doing so. It particularly isn’t supposed to be doing this solely based on a subject’s First Amendment protected activities. And DHS is only supposed to be collecting intelligence at all on the basis of a limited set of homeland security missions.

It’s not clear to me that DHS I&A was following any of these rules when it reported on Mike Baker and me. And that fact makes me worried about what other First Amendment protected activity might be the subject of intelligence reporting by DHS. I’m worried here less about journalism than about the equally constitutionally protected activity of protesting, to which the DHS has shifted considerable attention and energy. To put my basic question a little differently, if DHS could issue these reports about my Twitter activity, what else must it be reporting on vis a vis protestors?

But Trump says protesters are attacking our beautiful federal courthouses that cost eleventy trillion dollars apiece.

But for serious: Wittes goes on to explain why this clownish behavior is also very damn dangerous.

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