Will Snowden’s disclosures finally rein in the NSA?
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