Executive Order 12333

Have you ever heard of Executive Order 12333? There’s a good chance you haven’t – the federal government doesn’t exactly advertise its existence. It’s been on the books for a long time, and when it was first introduced it was easy enough to make a case for it being necessary, but under the new model of government that’s increasingly being imposed on us it has mutated into a deeply sinister piece of legislation that threatens every American’s liberties.

EO 12333 was signed on December 4, 1981 by President Ronald Reagan. It was the height of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, faced with determined opposition from Regan and his ally Margaret Thatcher, was pushing aggressively through military confrontation and a higher pace of espionage and terrorism directed at the west. Reagan wanted to make it easier for the CIA to collect evidence about Soviet activity, by increasing their powers so they could ask for information from other federal agencies.

What Reagan couldn’t foresee was how his successors would use those increased powers to start monitoring the American people. In 1991, with the Soviet Union already collapsed, the powers allocated under the order were expanded even more and that process has been repeated several times since. In 2004 and 2008 further orders were signed expanding the intelligence agencies’ ability to snoop far beyond what Reagan had ever imagined.

The original meaning of EO 12333 – enhanced cooperation with the CIA – has now expanded to mean that any federal agency can carry out intelligence gathering pretty much anywhere as long as it gets clearance to do it. We haven’t heard many cases where that clearance has been refused, but plenty where it’s been granted. The most egregious offender has to be the National Security Agency, which for years now has been electronically vacuuming up just about every message sent, anywhere. Every time you pick up the phone the NSA note who you called and how long you spoke for. Every email, text message or fax is intercepted and stored – although the NSA doesn’t define this as “collecting” unless it actually reads the message.

Officially your Fourth Amendment rights aren’t being violated, because the NSA targets its activities against foreigners who might be a threat to US interests. Of course that means thousands of messages between foreigners and US citizens are intercepted, a process that’s brushed off as “incidental” collection, but even if you don’t ever talk to foreigners your communications aren’t safe. Most people have now heard of ECHELON, a joint electronic intelligence operation among the “Five Eyes” community of the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The intelligence agencies of these five countries routinely share the data they’ve collected and out of the five, four aren’t bound by the Fourth Amendment at all.

The Commonwealth members of the Five Eyes community are all US allies, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have ears turned in our direction. Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters rivals the NSA in its ability to intercept electronic communications and there’s nothing to stop them listening to US citizens – the Constitution doesn’t apply to them. And most of what they collect gets shared with the NSA…

Even without the Soviet Union the world is a dangerous place, as the rise of ISIS shows. We need strong, effective intelligence services and we need to cooperate with our allies. But we also need to stand up for our rights, which is why the steady expansion of the EO 12333 snooper’s charter has to be stopped now.