I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency [the National Security Agency] and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return. Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho), investigating the National Security Agency, 1975.
On January 1, the president—enraged at The New York Times‘ unruly exercise of the First Amendment to disclose his no-longer-secret authorization of warrant-less surveillance and data mining by the National Security Agency—accused the Times of causing “great harm” to national security.
In the same speech, to wounded troops at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Bush again insisted that “this is a limited program to prevent attacks on the United States of America, and I repeat— limited. . . . The NSA program is one that listens to a few numbers called from outside the United States of known Al Qaeda or affiliated people.”
There is no way that Bush doesn’t know that this is wholly untrue, because he insists that he himself repeatedly reviews what the NSA is accomplishing. Nonetheless, in the January 2 Times—which may soon be hauled into a Justice Department criminal investigation of the dread leak—there is this question for the president:
“Officials say that the NSA has conducted . . . data-mining operations on vast volumes of communications within the United States to identify terror suspects. To accomplish this, the agency had reached agreements with major American telecommunications companies to gain access to some of the country’s biggest ‘switches’ carrying phone and e-mail traffic in and out of the country.” (Emphasis added.)
The president’s hollow self-justifications have, however, valuably drawn attention to the great harm that the NSA has been doing to the constitutional liberties of Americans for many years before he gave the ultra-covert agency even more license to subvert the Fourth Amendment in 2002. In the January 2, 2006, Washington Post, Ruth Marcus, going back over the records of Frank Church’s Senate investigating committee, noted that the NSA, created by President Harry Truman in 1952, “had for years—unbeknownst to Congress—been using a ‘watch list’ of U.S. citizens and organizations in sorting through the foreign communications it intercepted. In addition, for three decades, from 1945 to 1975, telegraph companies had been turning over to the NSA copies of most telegrams sent from the United States to foreign countries.
“This program, code-named Shamrock, was, according to the Church Committee report, ‘probably the largest governmental interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken.’ ”
But back then, the NSA was just warming up. Even 30 years ago, Frank Church saw the abyss beckoning our liberties in years to come. On October 29, 1975, he said:
“We have a particular obligation to examine the NSA, in light of its tremendous potential for abuse . . . The danger lies in the ability of the NSA to turn its awesome technology against domestic communications.”
After Frank Church died, Congress dozed as the NSA flourished. In the December 16, 2005, Washington Post, Dan Eggen, writing of the omnivorous NSA in action two decades after Frank Church’s warnings, noted that “for more than four years, the NSA tasked other military intelligence agencies to assist its broad-based surveillance effort directed at people inside the country suspected of having terrorist connections, even before Bush signed the 2002 order that authorized the NSA program, according to an informed U.S. official.” (Emphasis added.)
Adds Newsweek in its January 9, 2006, issue: the NSA itself “was [already] secretly working on sophisticated ‘data mining,’ computer programs that could sift through vast amounts of information searching for patterns and connections.”
Even in 1975, Frank Church was astonished at—and fearful of—the NSA’s reach, saying that “that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. . . . There would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.”
On December 31, the Justice Department started a criminal investigation—not into the constitutional rights of individual Americans violated by the NSA—but to discover the source of the leak to The New York Times of the president’s further strengthening of the NSA through warrant-less spying that will increase the NSA’s limitless data banks not only on suspected terrorists abroad but also on Americans who haven’t the remotest connection to any terrorist here or around the world.
If Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is able to go ahead with his investigation that will include the NSA itself, it may be possible for Americans to prevent our falling into that abyss from which Frank Church warned “there is no return.” As of this writing, however, there is White House and congressional Republican leadership pressure to move the Senate investigation into the hands of Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and his Senate Intelligence Committee. (According to The Almanac of American Politics, Pat Roberts’s American Civil Liberties Union rating is 22 out of 100.)
If this Congress fails again to rein in the NSA, Thomas Jefferson told us what to do: “The people . . . are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” So, as Joe Hill would say, it’s time to begin to organize to change Congress. And congressional Democrats have finally awakened to privacy as one of their core issues.