In neither case did the FBI have a warrant for the surveillance. The Supreme Court will hear arguments this week about whether that level of intrusion is illegal, or if the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution doesn't count any more.
The FBI claims provisions in the Patriot Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and half a dozen other civil rights-eroding rulings allow it to conduct investigations willy nilly, without having to explain in most cases why it believes it should be allowed to invade the privacy of an individual or company.
As with every option to bypass the rules, byes on warrantless investigation and wiretapping regulations led to abuses:
- FBI agents harassing friends and supporters of WikiLeaker Bradley Manning;
- it spied on children;
- responded with misleading information to Freedom of Information requests about its warrantless investigations;
- harassed, investigated and wiretapped Muslims with no documented connection to political or terrorist groups;
- and raided the homes and computers of activists protesting U.S. foreign policy and labor issues.
FBI adminstrators also "expanded agents' authority to comb databases, follow people and rummage through their trash even if they are not suspected of a crime," according to a piece civil-rights analyst and author David Shipler wrote for the New York Times.
Arguments supporting expansion of police powers are mostly based on the need to make investigations faster and more efficient to prevent terrorist attacks, and track both terrorists and ordinary criminals through the "trackless" Internet (which actually tracks every click, keystroke and pageview of every person to ever connect to it, though data that comprehensive is, so far, impossible to collect and analyze on a mass basis).
A report from civil-rights think-tank/watchdog group the Breakthrough Institute, however, showed warrantless surveillance helped federal officials break only two cases:
The Portland Seven – Oregon Muslims who tried to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban in 2001.