A former FBI counterterrorism agent acknowledged this week on CNN that every telephone conversation that takes place on American soil “is being captured as we speak.”
Tim Clemente’s spontaneous admission was made on the CNN show “Erin Burnett OutFront” on Wednesday in a discussion about phone calls between Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 24-year-old wife, Katherine Russell. Those conversations have become a focus of the government’s investigation into the attack. The revelation came when Burnett asked whether investigators could gain access to the calls in the event Russell refuses to talk about them.
Here is the exchange between Clemente and Burnett:
BURNETT: Tim, is there any way, obviously, there is a voice mail they can try to get the phone companies to give that up at this point. It’s not a voice mail. It’s just a conversation. There’s no way they actually can find out what happened, right, unless she tells them?
CLEMENTE: “No, there is a way. We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation. It’s not necessarily something that the FBI is going to want to present in court, but it may help lead the investigation and/or lead to questioning of her. We certainly can find that out.
BURNETT: “So they can actually get that? People are saying, look, that is incredible.
CLEMENTE: “No, welcome to America. All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not” [italics added].
As civil rights lawyer and national security writer Glenn Greenwald commented in The Guardian on Saturday, by “All of that stuff,” Clemente means that “every telephone conversation Americans have with one another on US soil, with or without a search warrant ‘is being captured as we speak.’ ”
Clemente reiterated his remarks on a Thursday night appearance with CNN host Carol Costello (see below), adding that “all digital communications in the past” are recorded and stored. “No digital communication is secure,” he said, sighing.
Greenwald wants to make sure we understand the full meaning of Clemente’s comments. “ ‘[N]o digital communication is secure,’ ” Greenwald repeats, “by which [Clemente] means not that any communication is susceptible to government interception as it happens (although that is true), but far beyond that: all digital communications—meaning telephone calls, emails, online chats and the like—are automatically recorded and stored and accessible to the government after the fact.
“To describe that is to define what a ubiquitous, limitless Surveillance State is,” Greenwald adds.
That no human communications can be allowed to take place without the scrutinizing eye of the US government is indeed the animating principle of the US Surveillance State. Still, this revelation, made in passing on CNN, that every single telephone call made by and among Americans is recorded and stored is something which most people undoubtedly do not know, even if the small group of people who focus on surveillance issues believed it to be true (clearly, both Burnett and Costello were shocked to hear this).