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Hullabaloo


Saturday, June 08, 2013

 
Yes Virginia, the government has lied before about spying on citizens

by digby

The revelations of this week reminded me of this story I wrote about back in the Bush years --- when most liberals were united in their opposition to these programs even as the congress did its usual rubber stamping in a "time-o-war." Then, as now, it was all about "balance."

SENATOR SAM ERVIN AND THE ARMY SPY SCANDAL OF 1970-1971: BALANCING NATIONAL SECURITY AND CIVIL LIBERTIES IN A FREE SOCIETY

Karl E. Campbell

"For the past four years, the U.S. Army has been closely watching civilian political activity within the United States." So charged Christopher H. Pyle, a former intelligence officer, in the January 1970 edition of Washington Monthly. Pyle's account of military spies snooping on law‑abiding citizens and recording their actions in secret government computers sent a shudder through the nation's press. Images from George Orwell's novel 1984 of Big Brother and the thought police filled the newspapers. Public alarm prompted the Senate Subcommittee on Consti­tutional Rights, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, to investigate. For more than a year, Ervin struggled against a cover‑up to get to the bottom of the surveillance system. Frustrated by the Nixon Administration's misleading statements, claims of inherent executive powers, and refusals to disclose information on the basis of national security, the Senator called for public hearings in 1971 to examine "the dangers the Army's program presents to the principles of the Constitution."

Sam Ervin, the "ol' country lawyer" from Morganton, intended his hearings to focus on the narrow topic of how the Army's domestic surveillance of American civilians threatened civil liberties. He wanted to illustrate some "down home truths" about how the federal government should never trample on his beloved Constitution or endanger the privacy rights of individual Americans. But the Senator found himself engaged in an extended public debate with the Nixon administration over one of the central questions of the American political experience--a question that has recently taken on a renewed significance since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--how to balance the constitutional rights of the individual with the national security needs of the state.

Read on for a great story, which was the beginning of the epic clash between Nixon's imperial presidency and the congress. It was the skirmish first of many. But it put the Executive Branch on notice that it had gone too far.

This wasn't an issue that the public cared deeply about, and I'm not even sure how much members of congress cared about it on the merits either. (Irvin obviously did.) But there were enough who did --- and others that simply cared about congressional prerogatives ---  to push back.

Rick Perlstein picks up the story in 1975, post-Watergate, post Vietnam when the press declared that nobody cared anymore about anything:

We have been here before.

In the fall of 1975, when a Senate select committee chaired by Frank Church and a House committee chaired by Otis Pike were investigating abuses of power by the CIA and FBI, Congresswoman Bella Abzug, the loaded pistol from New York (she had introduced a resolution to impeach Richard Nixon on her first day in office in 1971) dared turned her own House Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights to a new subject: the National Security Agency, and two twin government surveillance projects she had learned about codenamed “SHAMROCK” and “MINARET.” They had monitored both the phone calls and telegrams of American citizens for decades.

At the time, even political junkies did not know what the NSA was. “With a reputed budget of some $1.2 billion and a manpower roster far greater than the CIA,” the Associated Press explained, it had been “established in 1952 with a charter that is still classified as top secret.” (Is it still? I’d be interested to know.) President Ford had persuaded Frank Church not to hold hearings on the matter. (Ford had something in common with Obama: hypocrisy. “In all my public and private acts as your president, I expect to follow my instincts of openness and candor with full confidence that honesty is always the best policy in the end,” he’d said in his inaugural address, the one where he proclaimed, “Our long national nightmare is over.”) So Abzug proceeded on her own. At first, when she subpoenaed the executives responsible for going along with the programs the White House tried to prevent their testimony by claiming the private companies were “an agent of the United States.” When they did appear, they admitted their companies had voluntarily been turning over their full records of phone and telegram traffic to the government at the end of every single day, by courier, for over forty years, full stop. The NSA said the programs had been discontinued. Abzug claimed they still survived, just under different names. And at that, Church changed his mind: the contempt for the law here was so flagrant, he decided, he would initiate NSA hearings, too.

Conservative members of his committee issued defiant shrieks: “people’s right to know should be subordinated to the people’s right to be secure,” said Senator John Tower. It would “adversely affect our intelligence-gathering capability,” said Barry Goldwater. Church replied that this didn’t matter if the government was breaking the law. (“Tell me about the time when senators used to complain when the government broke the law, grandpa!”) He called the NSA’s director to testify before Congress for the first time in history. Appearing in uniform, Lieutenant General Lew Allen Jr. obediently disclosed that his agency’s spying on Americans was far vaster than what had even been revealed to President Ford’s blue-ribbon commission on intelligence chaired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. He admitted that it was, technically, illegal, and had been carried out without specific approval from any president. But he declined to explain how it worked. And added that thanks to such surveillance, “we are aware that a major terrorist attack in the US was prevented.” He refused to give further details on that, either—as if daring the senators to object. What goes around comes around: did I mention that before?

Read on to see that the public didn't really give a damn about all this either. (Well, the press decided they didn't, anyway.)

But the congress pressed on and (temporarily) instituted some meaningful reforms. Do I think this will happen this time? I don't know. But I hope so.


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