Government doesn’t monitor everyone, but citizens don’t buy it


Joseph Vealencis from the National Counterterrorism Center answers questions from the audience about countering the terrorist threat in the age of transparency during the 10th annual Poynter KSU Media Ethics Workshop on Thursday, Sept 18, 2014.

Emily Mills

The United States government has a reputation for monitoring every aspect of its citizens’ technological lives through emails, phone calls and text messages.

However, Joseph Vealencis, who led a counterterrorism panel at the Poynter KSU Media Ethics Workshop on Thursday, debunked this rumor. Vealencis works as director of the Office of Strategic Communication for the National Counterterrorism Center, which is one of the organizations making up the U.S. central intelligence community.

“We are not reading all of your email,” Vealencis said. “We are not storing it all somewhere. I don’t have a need to know any of that. I just don’t have that kind of time, and neither do my colleagues. Quite frankly, your personal emails, no one has a need to know except you and the receiver.”

Even so, some Kent State students said they believe the government is still monitoring them closely.

Senior biology major Joey Adams said he believes the government is too involved in citizens’ online lives, and it has made him think twice about posting certain things online.

“That’s a huge invasion of privacy,” he said. “Their access to everything, even things that are supposed to be private, will stop me from posting some things.”   

Junior teaching English as a second language major Shen Wen Tan said she also tends to censor what she posts based on her idea that someone, somewhere will see it and do something about it.

How do you feel about the government monitoring your online presence?Photo

“I’m not a huge fan of invasion of privacy, so no, I don’t like that.” — Jordan Calderone, sophomore English major


“I think it’s kind of scary that they would access what you’re doing and what websites you’re visiting and what pictures you’re posting.” — Adam Salberg, sophomore biology major


“I’m pretty on the fence. In some ways, it’s really good. Myself, I don’t really care. I think generally it’s good, but it’s also an invasion of privacy. From reports I’ve heard, I think they only do it for good.” — Josh Roberts, freshman business major


“I feel it’s kind of scary people are constantly monitoring what I’m posting. I would be afraid certain things I say would be offensive, and they would take action. I would be more cautious (about what I’m posting).” — Shen Wen Tan, junior teaching English as a second language major


“That’s a huge invasion of privacy. (The government) needs to be able to monitor, but being able to monitor everything isn’t right. Their access to everything, even things that are supposed to be private, will stop me from posting some things.” — Joey Adams, senior biology major

“I feel it’s kind of scary people are constantly monitoring what I’m posting,” she said. “I would be afraid certain things I say would be offensive, and they would take action.”

Vealencis, who described himself as a U.S. government employee, but not the U.S. government, said the main goals of the NCTC are to monitor suspected and known terrorists overseas and the contacts they have in the U.S.

The NCTC, founded in 2004 by recommendation of the 9/11 Commission after the attacks, is a part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Vealencis said the only time the NCTC monitors citizens’ emails is if those citizens are communicating with known terrorists.

“Why are you communicating with a known terrorist?” he said. “I don’t think the American people think that’s unreasonable (to investigate).”

If a citizen is communicating with a terrorist, the chances are good that the government will go to a court and seek a warrant to investigate based on probable cause, he said.

“That is a separate and distinct process, and that is a process that is followed pursuant to the law,” Vealencis said.

He said although one of the NCTC’s main goals is to gather information on suspected terrorists, the organization is not a collection agency. It doesn’t actually gather information itself, nor does it data mine, or look for patterns in large data sets.

“We have access to the threat information from the CIA, FBI, NSA — alphabet soup,” he said. “If it’s lawfully collected and related to our counterterrorism purposes, we’ll use it.”

But, this information is protected with layers of safeguards to protect citizens’ private information, he said.

“We now have a responsibility to protect it,” Vealencis said.

He also said the organization only permanently retains information that could be directly related to terrorism, usually data concerning international travel, immigration benefits or suspicious financial transactions.

If someone wants to find out what information the NCTC has on her, Vealencis said she should file a Freedom of Information Act request, which gives citizens the right to access information from the federal government.

Last June, Edward Snowden leaked classified documents from the NSA, one of the most significant events since the NCTC’s founding, Vealencis said.

Snowden, a former CIA employee, released classified information, including thousands of documents explaining the government’s domestic surveillance programs.

“Edward Snowden was a trusted individual,” Vealencis said. “He made an oath, he violated that oath. He disclosed a lot of information, not just to the American public, to the world.”

Vealencis said Snowden released information about international surveillance techniques. Because the government no longer can use them, it is focusing more on monitoring domestic threats.

“I think we’ve changed the way that we look at the insider threat and our resources dedicated to identifying that threat,” he said. “What we cannot allow is someone like Edward Snowden to stop us from information sharing. We have come a long way from need-to-know to need-to-share over the last 13 years since 9/11.”

Christopher Banks, a Kent State political science professor whose areas of expertise include terrorism, said Snowden compromised national security and public safety after his leak.

“Some call (Edward Snowden) a traitor — others call him a hero,” he said. “I think the truth lies in between, but he certainly compromised a lot of people’s safety by disclosing what he did, and he was entrusted to do that. He felt like he was doing a patriotic act of some sort, but a lot of people would disagree with him.”

While Snowden was a specific domestic threat, the larger threat is an international one, said Vealencis. These terrorists have adapted since the 9/11 attacks, using technology to their advantage.

Vealencis said this has also forced the counterterrorism community, made up of organizations like the NCTC, CIA, FBI and NSA, to adapt as well.

“We have increasingly seen an agile enemy adapt,” he said. “The threat we face today is dramatically different from the one we faced 13 years ago.”

Banks said he agreed that both citizen and terrorist use of technology has evolved.

“Technology has changed,” he said. “The rise of the Internet and cell phones certainly have changed the dynamics. In the past, you didn’t have that capability.”

Banks said a unique obstacle the government faces is balancing information gathering on terrorists with protecting the rights of citizens.

“It certainly has put a big challenge before the government in trying to collect information in a way that protects civil rights and liberties,” he said. “That’s the balance. One side of the argument is the government needs to get more information to know what the nature of the threat is. On the other hand, if you give the government too much power, there’s no way to stop it from happening. There’s no lines that are being drawn.”

One of the most technologically savvy terrorist organizations at the forefront of both the NCTC agenda and American citizens’ minds is ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. (The organization is also known as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Levant describes the region of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.)

ISIL arose in 2003 after the deposition of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The group has garnered international attention in recent months after capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul in June and releasing videos of beheadings of hostages, including American journalist James Foley and British aide worker David Haines.

Vealencis said the 15,000 foreign fighters who make up ISIL might pose a direct threat for American citizens.

“Left unchecked, ISIL can and will threaten the homeland more directly,” he said. “They are really engaged more than any other terrorist organization. They’ve surpassed all other terrorist organizations when it comes to their capability on social media.”

Vealencis said when the U.S. faces a serious threat, the counterterrorism community does everything it can to protect its citizens.

However, despite Vealencis’ numerous confirmations that the government doesn’t monitor every U.S. citizen, the misconception that the government keeps a close eye on citizens’ technological activity hasn’t dissipated.

Banks said although there are some regulatory policies in place, he thinks there needs to be more definite guidelines when it comes to what the government monitors.

“There’s built-in protection that require the government to kind of go through in order to get wiretaps and in order to get certain orders put into place,” he said.

These protections include the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — a 1978 act which explains how the government goes about electronic surveillance to obtain foreign intelligence information — and Stellar Wind — a previously classified program run by former President George W. Bush that allowed the government to wiretap citizens’ phones and collect email metadata.

Banks explained these programs are not as strong as they once were since the government’s focus has shifted to preventing terrorist attacks.

“They’ve kind of gotten weaker as a result of 9/11 and the passage of the PATRIOT Act and the way to try to prevent terrorist attacks from actually happening before they happen,” he said. “It gives the government a lot more domestic authority to go ahead and find out what people are doing through wiretaps and searches and seizures.”

Banks said people should limit their social media postings to protect themselves.

“Don’t post as much,” he said. “Students have to be very, very wary of putting personal information onto the Web and social media sites. I would not do that just as an open book.

“The more you put out there, you’re sort of putting a noose around your neck and hanging yourself. Why would you want to do that?” Banks said.

Vealencis said he knows regardless of what he says, people will still believe that the government closely monitors them.

“What frustrates myself and my peers is that no matter what I’ve said here, you’re still going to have people who are going to go out and say, ‘The government collects every email, reads every email and stores every email,’” he said.

Vealencis said this stems from people not understanding what the government legally can and cannot do.

“People misstate one, our capabilities and two, our authorities,” he said. “So the way the laws are written, you as a person can do anything you want unless the law says you can’t. The government cannot do anything unless the law says you can. That’s an important difference in how people and government are managed in society.”

Regardless of what people think, Vealencis said he’s comfortable with what he and the NCTC do to protect Americans from terrorist threats.

“I sleep great at night,” he said. “I may go home and be absolutely exhausted, but when I put my head down on my pillow, I know that myself, the people I work with and my organization have done something that day to protect the American public.”

Contact Emily Mills at [email protected].