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September 16, 2014
Saturday, May 24, 2014

A familiar ring to it

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland.
By Walter Pincus
The Washington Post (*)
In NSA tactics, history does at times seem to repeat itself

WASHINGTON — The Senate report is called “National Security Agency Surveillance Affecting Americans,” and describes the results of its investigation into “NSA’s electronic surveillance practices and capabilities, especially involving American citizens, groups, and organizations.”

Among its findings are:

— Project MINARET, in which the NSA intercepted and disseminated international communications of US citizens and groups whose names were supplied by other agencies and put on a “watch list.” Those listed were supposed to be linked to concerns about narcotics, domestic violence and antiwar activities.

It was part of “an attempt to discover if there was a ‘foreign influence’ on them,” according to the Senate report. NSA personnel were instructed to keep the agency’s name off any distributed reports in order to “restrict the knowledge that NSA was collecting such information,” the report said.

— Operation SHAMROCK involved the collection of millions of international telegrams ”sent to, from or transiting the United States” provided to NSA by the three major international telegraph companies. In some years NSA analysts reviewed 150,000 telegrams a month, according to the committee. What began at the end of World War II as an Army Signals Security Agency project to get access to foreign government messaging morphed into collecting calls from a watch list of US citizens whose names were supplied by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

The CIA, the FBI and others joined in. Over one four-year period — when the list had 1,200 names — the committee said NSA distributed “approximately 2,000 reports (the texts or summaries of intercepted messages) to the various requesting agencies as the result of inclusion of American names on the watch lists.”

Any of this sound familiar?

This was the 1976 report, one of 14 from the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, chaired by then-senator Frank Church, D-Idaho. One direct result of the Church committee's activities, which began as a probe into domestic CIA activities in the 1960s and 1970s, was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). President Jimmy Carter signed the bill into law in 1978.

That law, amended several times, has provided a legal foundation for NSA’s operations. It also added judicial and congressional oversight of NSA with the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the House and Senate intelligence committees. At the same time, it continued secrecy for operations necessary to carry out electronic surveillance to protect national security. It allowed intercepts abroad of foreign entities and individuals without a warrant when collecting foreign intelligence. When the target became a US citizen or someone known to be in the United States, a warrant was required within 72 hours.

History does at times seem to repeat itself.

But wait a minute.

There is one big difference, despite the current uproar over disclosures from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Nothing yet disclosed from those thousands of leaked documents shows the NSA-collected information had been used to violate anyone’s civil liberties.

The Church report found that NSA had created files on some 75,000 US citizens, including “entries on many prominent Americans in business, the performing arts and politics, including members of Congress.” Among them were senators Church and Howard Baker, R-Tenn., the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and journalists and athletes, including those considered opponents of the Vietnam War.

These files included not only the contents of NSA-collected messages, but reports from other intelligence agencies and even newspaper clippings. The Church committee’s report said while it had not found that any NSA employee had used the files “improperly,” it had received information that one or more CIA employees had worked in those files and retrieved information for that agency without NSA supervision.

Those NSA files on US citizens were destroyed in the 1970s. Such files were hardly the metadata NSA has been collecting that has drawn criticism today: all US phone toll records of foreign calls to or from US phones, but not their contents.

I write about the Church committee’s activities in part because Glenn Greenwald, in his new book No Place To Hide, says he took the title from a statement Church made August 17, 1975, during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Church did not mention the NSA by name but noted how the government has “perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air.”

Greenwald quotes Church: “Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, 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.”

Greenwald drops what Church went on to say, that the danger was “if this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and 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.”

Church’s solution was this: “We must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss.” There is no tyrant and none of the Snowden documents released so far show NSA has crossed that abyss.

The possibility is always there, but so far NSA has shown it apparently learned its lesson from 38 years ago.

Note: “Your View” — the letters section — Wwill return next week.

@walterpincus
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