Will Snowden’s disclosures finally rein in the NSA?

January 2, 2014

The National Security Agency, most secretive of the government’s 16 intelligence arms, is unaccustomed to the glare of publicity. But fierce public attention has been focused on the eavesdropping agency since the startling revelations from Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor now granted temporary asylum in Moscow.

These disclosures are not the first time the NSA, often known as “No Such Agency,” has been caught surreptitiously reading Americans’ private communications. The agency, however, has largely been able to  evade serious consequences or restrictions after the earlier revelations. In fact, the NSA’s surveillance of Americans has increased exponentially.

During the mid-1970s, a special Senate committee headed by Senator Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, focused a spotlight on NSA abuses. But those disclosures were overshadowed by the panel’s investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency, which revealed decades of assassination attempts, illegal activities and misadventures.

The CIA got most of the headlines. But the Church Committee’s televised hearings also revealed the NSA’s Project Shamrock — under which three major telecom companies, RCA, ITT and Western Union, had given the NSA copies of all cable traffic entering and leaving the United States.

The program began in 1945, with the NSA’s Army predecessor; and continued in 1952, when a secret presidential order established the NSA as part of the Defense Department. First microfilms and, later, tapes of every cable were given daily to NSA and then distributed to the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service and the Pentagon. Project Shamrock was axed by NSA after the committee exposed it.

The CIA abuses and illegal programs received wider publicity than the NSA’s activities, in part because the committee revealed assassination plots by the CIA against foreign leaders. The Senate committee reported that the CIA was involved, encouraged, or knew about plots to assassinate or overthrow eight foreign leaders. Five of these leaders died violently, including Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and dictator Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.

The agency hired two Mafia figures, Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana, to try to kill Fidel Castro with six gelatin pills filled with botulinum toxin. The agency had tested its pills on monkeys. The monkeys died. Castro didn’t. No one even got close enough to the Cuban leader to slip the pills into his food or drink. Both mobsters were later murdered by unknown assailants.

The CIA had also spied on American citizens — anti-Vietnam War activists and others — in operation CHAOS. The agency also tried out LSD and mind-altering drugs on Americans, who were unaware they were being dosed. One, Frank Olson, a civilian Army researcher, went out the window of a New York hotel room under murky circumstances nine days after the CIA laced his after-dinner Cointreau with LSD.

In one of the Church Committee’s more memorable episodes, CIA Director William Colby revealed a poison dart gun used to inject agency targets. The gun, which Colby called “a non-discernible microbioinoculator,” fired darts so tiny that the person shot would feel nothing and no trace of the dart or the poison would be found in a later examination of the body. Church waved the dart gun for the news photographers, and the photo made front pages across the country.

The committee also found out the CIA had illegally opened first-class mail. The agency screened a total of more than 28 million letters and opened 215,000 in a program called HTLingual. The agency knew it was breaking the law. One memo by a senior CIA official said U.S. intelligence agencies must “vigorously deny” the mail program, which should be “relatively easy to ‘hush up.'”

When the CIA’s legendary counterintelligence chief, James J. Angleton, testified to the committee, he defended the mail-opening program. “It’s inconceivable,” Angleton said, “that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of the government.”

Pressed by the senators, Angleton “withdrew” the startling statement — but refused to say whether he believed it.

In the wake of these revelations, reforms were put in place to reassure the public that such abuses would not be repeated. The Senate and the House of Representative created intelligence committees to oversee the agencies. A new law required a presidential “finding” be obtained before a covert operation could be undertaken. President Gerald R. Ford issued an order prohibiting the assassination of foreign leaders.

In addition, a special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created to review requests for wiretaps and surveillance of citizens and others. The judges bristle at any suggestion that the court acts as a rubber stamp — but it has rarely turned down the government’s surveillance requests.

Despite the Church Committee’s revelations of intelligence abuses and law-breaking, critics claimed the panel had irreparably harmed the agencies and national security. If anything, however, the agencies have emerged today more powerful than ever.

One major reason is that the protections put in place after the Church Committee disclosures have not worked as expected. After the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush secretly authorized the NSA to conduct a program of warrantless wiretapping of Americans. The program operated without approval by the special surveillance court.

It was exposed in 2005 by New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. Yet Congress, in response, did not end the program or even restrict it. Instead, Congress passed and Bush signed a law in 2007 that, in effect, legalized the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program.

Since Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA, it has become apparent that the agency’s eavesdropping in the United States and around the globe is far more extensive than previously known. The former contractor has revealed a program of NSA “metadata” collection, in which billions of U.S. telephone calls are logged every day, and the numbers, though not the contents, recorded. As were emails. Much like Project Shamrock decades ago, major U.S. telecom companies have been providing their records to the government.

There was outrage in Europe and elsewhere at the news that the NSA was spying on its allies. Germans, in particular, were furious to learn that the NSA had tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone.

Judge Richard J. Leon of the federal district court in Washington recently called the metadata program likely unconstitutional, a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and “almost Orwellian.” He said the government had not shown “a single instance” when all that snooping had foiled a terrorist plot. A presidential advisory panel has also now called for an end to the NSA’s metadata collection.

Then last week [[Dec. 27 if it runs this week]  a federal district court judge in New York, William Pauley, ruled the bulk collection program legal and said it might even have headed off the 9/11 terrorist attack. With the courts split, the issue may have to be decided by the appeals courts, the Supreme Court, or Congress.

If the NSA has vastly increased its power and programs, it is also now clear that the CIA had never been effectively reined in by the post-Church Committee reforms. In the wake of 9/11, the agency tortured suspected terrorists by “waterboarding,” or simulated drowning, and by subjecting suspects to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation and other forms of “enhanced interrogation” methods approved by the Bush administration.

These took place in the agency’s “black sites” overseas. In addition, the CIA engaged in a program of “rendition,” under which suspects were returned to countries where they would almost certainly be imprisoned and tortured for information. Despite President Barack Obama’s promises to place greater controls on the use of drones by the CIA and the military, the weapons continue to kill innocent civilians as well as militants. And in spite of Ford’s ban on assassinations, the drones have been used to target individuals — including Americans.

During the Cold War, when the United States faced off against the Soviet Union, the threat posed by Moscow and communism was cited as the justification for illegal actions by the intelligence agencies. Today, terrorism has replaced communism as the threat used to justify secret or questionable activities abroad and violations of privacy and the individual rights of Americans at home.

Against that background, we should remember James Madison’s words. “Perhaps it is a universal truth,” he wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1798, “that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged against provisions against danger, real or pretended from abroad.”

Those words are as relevant today as when they were written more than 200 years ago.


PHOTO (TOP): An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone in Berlin, June 7, 2013. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

PHOTO (INSERT 1): The National Security Agency is pictured from the air at Fort Meade, Maryland. September 19, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (INSERT): James J. Angleton  Wikipedia Commons

PHOTO (INSERT): A National Security Agency data gathering facility in Bluffdale, about 25 miles (40 km) south of Salt Lake City, Utah, December 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart




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Can we just get rid of the NSA, stop the spying and think about our Bill of Rights. Snowden seems to be a real hero. Snowden recently dismissed U.S. explanations to the Brazilian government and others that the bulk of metadata gathered on billions of emails and calls was more “data collection” than surveillance. “These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.” Think J Edgar Hover and the FBI of OLD or new, you decide… “When governments fear the people there is liberty. When the people fear the government there is tyranny.” — Thomas Jefferson

Posted by lucky12345 | Report as abusive

Really thorough summary of the historical context of snooping/spying. Good journalism.

Posted by Totallyappalled | Report as abusive

Snowden is somewhere between hero and traitor – whistleblower works for me. Let’s not forget this chilling statement from a brutal, nationalistic ideologue in WW2 Germany:

…But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who
determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All
you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.
It works the same in any country.” – Herman Goering

Actually more interesting is the fact that it matters not who’s in the White House. Rather the consistency of the agencies and others to trample on privacy rights from administration to administration regardless the party in control…in the name of security of course. Too many programs, billions maybe trillions spent on hardware, software, secret locations, personnel, – all of which none of us on this site would have known about – ever.

Posted by 1Mike | Report as abusive

Who’s running this site?

Posted by 1Mike | Report as abusive

Actually more interesting is the fact that it matters not who’s in the White House. Rather the consistency of the agencies and others to trample on privacy rights from administration to administration regardless the party in control…in the name of security of course. Too many programs, billions maybe trillions spent on hardware, software, secret locations, personnel, – all of which none of us on this site would have known about – ever.

Posted by 1Mike | Report as abusive

Whether Snowden obtained and then leaked this information legally or illegally will have to be decided. But, in my opinion, Snowden is a whistle blower in that the documents he has released has shown the USA and the rest of world the depths that the NSA spying is affecting all of us, US citizens, foreign allies, everyone, all in an effort to find out who might be a terrorist.

Grant Snowden clemency and allow him to come back home – providing if he wants to. After all, he will have a target on his back and their possibly be a horrific “accident” resulting in his death.

Posted by SandyC69 | Report as abusive

Are you serious? Senior NSA types have repeatedly said that the worst of the disclosures is yet to come. If you read the intel correctly, the Army is directly involved in producing malware; not researchers at the NSA, regular line troops stationed in Texas produce their custom hacking applications. The Navy at Fort Ord has gotten a pass, as have the Air Force units in Colorado, but it’s going to come out. This is huge, it is many billions of dollars a year and tens of thousands of people bigger than the NSA. None of our political leadership is up to challenging that.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Nobody reading this article should have any doubt that the only way to end the spy program is to vote out of office those who support it and vote into office only those who promise to end it.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive


If you could get someone into office who promised to end the spying, would you be gullible enough to believe him when he told you is had been stopped?

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

Some changes in how NSA works could be made . But the simple fact is that extremists groups are still around who want to destroy our way of life . Democracy , freedom of expression and religion to name a few . So we still need to be protected by an efficient security system , warts and all .In case you are wondering – yes , I do consider Snowden to be a traitor who should be judged in a Unitted States court .

Posted by Burn1938 | Report as abusive

Snowden’s disclosures?

What, that spy agencies are engaged in spying? Yeah, that’s revolutionary stuff :)

This is a government that rounded up and imprisoned 110,000 law-abiding American Citizens for having ‘Jap eyes’ at the wrong time.

A government which trailed, wiretapped and infiltrated MLK’s church (without a warrant) and amassed a 22,000 page surveillance report on MLK himself, and then eventually……. built a monument to the man.

Spies will spy, and they don’t play fair. Snowden’s 15 minutes are way past gone.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Funny, every day I look at some of the top news sites, and Reuters is the only one that manages to squeeze in yet another anti NSA piece, virtually every single day. And pretty much all of them are filled with exaggerations, bad info, and inferences that the government is essentially sitting there and listening to every single thing every American does. Obviously the people at Reuters have some weird obsession with the NSA, or maybe they’re just really paranoid. I guess they must have a standing request put out to all the chronically grumpy writers, who just love looking for any excuse to bash them yet again. Because, you know… it never hurts to be lectured one more time by some alarmist, about our freedoms potentially being abused. It never gets old.

I’ve seen Mr. Wise himself admit that there is overwhelming evidence (and most likely proof known by some people behind closed doors) that very large state sponsored programs exist in other countries, in regards to industrial espionage and ‘hacking’ in general, including China, Iran, Syria, N. Korea… Yet, in the minds of most of the people that seem to love writing these types of commentaries, where we are lectured about our freedoms supposedly being abused… they appear to only believe that the US should be scolded about such things. Judging by the fact that the efforts of those other countries are barely ever mentioned… I guess they get a free pass to do whatever they want. Apparently the media only thinks that the US should be held to such lofty standards.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

@Burn1938 > extremists groups are still around who want
> to destroy our way of life
Collection of metadata is everything. With it I can tell what you are thinking, what you are doing and what you want. I don’t need anything else.
The ultimate goal of signals intelligence and analysis is to learn not only what is being said, and what is being done, but what is being thought.
Why kill possibly dangerous individuals (and the inevitable innocent bystanders) with drone strikes when it will soon become technically irresistible to exterminate the dangerous ideas themselves?

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

@UScitizentoo: “Collection of metadata is everything. With it I can tell what you are thinking, what you are doing and what you want. I don’t need anything else.”

Why would I care if the government knows what I’m thinking? I post it right here on these pages. And so does everyone else on here. If thoughts are such a guarded goodie…. why they all over the place?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Between our educational system and our typically christian religious training (although other religions are equally at fault for feeding people with fantasies as fact) americans are too dumb to even know what having the NSA spy on them means. Most americans are oblivious to reality. There is no need for the NSA to change, since there is a very small minority that even know what they do and only a subgroup of those people who find it objectionable. Thus while these people who understand the NSA and object may be the brightest people we have, they are insignificant politically and our leaders can simply ignore them and pander to the brainwashed morons as usual.

Our leaders get a real stiffy by dominating and abusing those people who are not corrupt and often correct in their criticism of our so-called political system. Stomping on stupid people is fun, but not as fun as stomping on the smart ones.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Answer to the question – not just NO, but he**, NO. Since the NSA is spying on anyone and everyone, do you think the politicians, court judges and justices, corporation heads and other bigwigs are not spied on? The NSA knows too much about too many of our so-called “leaders” and those leaders just might have items in their backgrounds that could bring them down if NSA decides to release the information.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Will NSA’s disclosures finally rein in the Congress?
In other (irrelevant, you will not find it at Reuters) news Senator Bernie Sanders asks today NSA if it spies on Congress.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

Today came answer of NSA spokesman to Senator Sanders question whether NSA spies on US congress: “Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons”.
In other words: Yes, we spy on US Congress on regular basis.
I’m curious whether they spy on Obama.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

Wow, stooping to the level of our enemies and beating them at their own game. What was that old saying…’two wrongs don’t make a right?’

Posted by thinkb4 | Report as abusive

The “missing link” that makes this NSA spying exceptionally dangerous for Americans is “Operation Mockingbird”, the CIA’s domestic propaganda activities / plant journalists in the US mainstream media which manipulate US public opinion to favor the President’s / CIA’s agenda, uncovered during the Senate’s Church Committee investigations in the 1970’s. Basically…the US President’s private, secret, mainstream media propaganda machine…abuse of this power is everything we were told the Soviets and other communists did to their people and we did not. Folks…we are them. Sadly, I can’t imagine “Mockingbird” allowing an anti-NSA political candidate to succeed. Google it. Every American should know about Operation Mockingbird.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

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