On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida and opened fire on innocent clubgoers in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S history. When the carnage ended, 49 people had lost their lives and another 58 were injured.
After a three-hour standoff with local police, Mateen was shot and killed by the responding officers.
Initial reports claimed the shooter may have targeted the club because it was known as a popular spot for the gay community. During the incident, the shooter called 911 and claimed his allegiance to ISIS. He also decried U.S military operations in the Middle East and said the shooting was prompted by the airstrike that killed ISIS leader Abu Waheeb in Iraq the previous month.
Both leads were examined. The FBI conducted an investigation into whether this attack was a hate crime while the CIA investigated the shooter’s connections to overseas terrorist groups. (The CIA found no credible links tying the shooter to any terrorist group even though he pledged allegiance during the attack.)
Rewriting the Rules
As a result of this incident, the U.S. government updated its surveillance procedures to include the collection, retention and dissemination of information on “homegrown violent extremists” such as Mateen. Several changes were made to Department of Defense (DoD) Manual 5240.01, which governs the department’s intelligence-gathering activities, including physical and electronic surveillance methods.
This manual was originally created following President Reagan’s authorization of Executive Order 12333 in December 1981. In an interview with DoD News, DoD senior intelligence oversight official Michael Mahar explained, “The procedures were carefully and methodically developed in 1982 and they’ve served us well for the many years since then. But we’ve reached the point now that due to changes in technology, law and intelligence-collection practices, we were compelled to do a significant overhaul.”
You can read up on the specifics here, but basically these changes allow the government to collect information on Americans even if they have no connection to foreign terrorists groups.
No One Is Safe
Before the policy update in 2016, intelligence agencies were required to show that the surveillance target was working directly on behalf of a foreign terrorist group. The National Security Act states that Congress must be informed of all significant intelligence activities — however, this wording is not very specific and open to interpretation.
The newly revised manual now states that surveillance can be conducted on any person who is “reasonably believed to be acting for, or in furtherance of, the goals or objectives of an international terrorist or international terrorist organization, for purposes harmful to the national security of the United States.”
Most people believe these changes emerged from the fact that nowadays criminals may be motivated by foreign terrorist organizations even though they don’t have direct communication or ties to a particular group. Undoubtedly, the internet and social media have made it incredibly easy for people living in the U.S. to become radicalized by foreign groups without direct contact or visits to foreign countries.
This is exactly what occurred with the Pulse nightclub shooting based on the evidence gathered by the FBI and CIA. Even though the shooter had zero direct communication with terrorists, he clearly confirmed his reasons for the attack on behalf of the terrorist group ISIS.
A Dangerous Precedent
What does this mean for you?
Obviously, this makes it easier for the government to find an excuse to spy on Americans. Likewise, some privacy advocates are concerned that — since these changes fall under the protection of an executive order — the new policies lack proper government oversight to ensure laws are followed and civil liberties are not infringed.
The reality is this doesn’t mean the U.S. government will be initiating a huge number of surveillance operations on average Americans because there must still be a reasonable belief that the target is attempting to advance the goals of a foreign terrorist group.
However, you and I both know this opens the door a little wider for the federal government to encroach on the privacy of its citizens.