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Bad Cop Blotter

The Unknown Unknowns of the NSA

The revelations about America's most secretive intelligence agency keep coming: Today we found out that the NSA uses metadata and tracks the SIM cards of suspected terrorists' cellphones to locate targets for drone strikes.

by Lucy Steigerwald
Feb 10 2014, 9:45pm

A fake drone carried by protesters during Obama's second inauguration. Photo via Flickr user Debra Sweet

According to investigative journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill—writing today in their shiny new online publication, the Intercept—the NSA locates targets for drone strikes by using metadata and tracking the coordinates of cards and cellphones. The article goes on to note that using these sources instead of intelligence gathered from humans on the ground makes it more likely that these strikes will kill innocent people.

Scahill and Greenwald based their report on documents released by Edward Snowden, as well as former Air Force drone operator Brandon Bryant, who’s now a critic of drone strikes, and another former drone operator employed by the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, who says he worked with the NSA. According to the Intercept piece, some targets are aware they are being tracked and will switch cell phones or SIM cards to confuse their targeters. Others, less savvy, have cluelessly given their phones to family members, which leads to a Hellfire missile hitting someone, though not necessarily a terrorist.

This kind of imprecise targeting may help explain why, say, the American 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a CIA strike two weeks after his father was assassinated. It also helps to undermine the narrative that metadata is somehow not important enough for folks to guard jealously.

That glimpse into how many pies the NSA has a finger in is in odd contrast with new leaks that downplay the size of the NSA’s domestic phone dragnet. A recent report in the Washington Post said that, according to anonymous US officials, less than a third of the metadata from mobile phone calls in the US is currently catalogued under section 215 of the PATRIOT Act; those anonymous officials say it’s mostly landlines being monitored. Ironically, this might undermine the Obama administration’s defense of the program, which has been that it’s necessary to gather the whole haystack in order to find the dangerous needle of terrorism.

Many commentators, like the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, don’t buy the narrative put forth by these leaks and go so far as to suggest the officials' info may be deliberately misleading. (Mary Wheeler, the national security blogger who now works with Scahill and Greenwald, wondered whether records are being gathered under a justification different from the controversial 215.)

If the officials who claimed that so little of our cell-phone data is collected are lying, Friedersdorf writes, this means numerous legislators were being kept even more in the dark about the NSA’s activities than we realized. Even now, even after all these revelations delivered to us by Snowden and the journalists who have worked with him, the public barely has any idea how extensive the NSA’s surveillance-gathering activities are—which, of course, just underscores the need for a whistleblower like Snowden in the first place.

On to this week’s bad cops:

–Late last year, Henry “Hank” Magee of Burleson County, Texas, shot and killed Sergeant Adam Sowders, a sheriff’s deputy who broke down his door looking for marijuana. Magee and his attorney claim that he had no idea that the people smashing their way into his house on December 19 were cops, and there are many reasons—including similar tragedies in the past—to believe that’s the case. Magee was brought up on capital murder charges for the death of Sowders, which was no surprise considering his status as a cop killer. The shocking part of the case came on Wednesday, when a grand jury declined to bring charges against Magee for the death of Sowders, deciding that he believed he was acting in self-defense when he fired. Old Hank isn’t out of trouble yet, however—he still faces charges for his two marijuana plants, which, in conjunction with his owning (legal) firearms, could bring up to a decade in prison.

–Some people are concerned that Google Glass will bring yet more opportunities for individuals, corporations, and governments to monitor our every move, so the idea of cops outfitted with Google Glass may be kind of disturbing. But as long as wiretapping protections for civilians remain intact, maybe the Google glasses would encourage accountability as the police record their interactions with the public. So far, only a few are trying it out.

–On October 16, a Pinecrest, Florida, cop pulled over at the scene of an accident and—according to witnesses, an off-duty cop who was present, and dashcam footage—failed to do anything to help the two car crash victims who later died. When officer Ana Carrasco arrived on the scene, Miami police sergeant Javier Ortiz, who had been passing by the accident and sprung into action, was covered in blood and trying to aid one victim. He told Carrasco to give the other one CPR, but she just stood there and looked at him, ignoring his repeated pleas to help. Carrasco later said she was afraid of moving the man because he might have had an injured neck or spine, which hardly explains her odd behavior. In any case, she was only suspended from duty for a week. Both the boyfriend of one of the victims and Ortiz are horrified at what they see as lax punishment for a police officer who was strangely unresponsive when people needed her.

–Back in February 2013, the Los Angeles Police Department was in a panic over its former employee Christopher Dorner, who had gone from cop to cop killer. That panic involved some twitchy trigger fingers and some hurt bystanders, including Margie Carranza and her mother, Emma Hernandez, who were injured when LAPD officers fired 100 rounds at their car—which didn’t resembled the vehicle Dorner was driving—while they delivered newspapers. Hernandez was shot twice in the back and Carranza acquired superficial injuries from broken glass. Hernandez and Carranza received $4.2 million for their trouble, plus an additional $40,000 to fix the truck. For the last few months, LAPD officials have debated whether the eight officers who shot at the women were justified in doing so, and chief Charlie Beck and a civilian review board said the officers violated department policy. But that doesn’t mean the officers will be disciplined much. After a little training tune-up, all eight will be back on the streets. Beck may or may not punish them himself, but the incident reminds us there’s a troubling lack of accountability when it comes to the LAPD. If you fire at people who look nothing like your suspect, you should lose your job as a police officer.

–For our Good Cop of the Week, we're going with King County, Washington, sheriff John Urquhart, who on February 3 completed the process of firing Deputy Patrick Saulet. On July 30, Saulet attempted to prevent the Stranger reporter Dominic Holden from photographing an arrest, claiming that the area was not public property and, when Holden backed away, that he couldn’t photograph from the sidewalk either. Saulet later lied about his interactions with Holden and was show to have a long history of discipline issues. After a six-month investigation based on Holden’s complaint, Saulet was given the boot. Sheriff Urquhart noted in the wake of the firing that “you have a constitutional right to photograph the police.” Every officer who makes that damned clear is making a good start.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag.