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Hullabaloo


Saturday, February 01, 2014

 
Your inconvenient history lesson 'o the day, Perlstein edition

by digby

On the Church Commission findings regarding the NSA:

So what did we learn then, and what have we forgotten about what we learned then, now?

The basic problem, the Church Committee explained, was that “NSA has intercepted and disseminated international communications of American citizens whose privacy ought to be protected under our constitution.” Most dramatically, the congressional investigators discovered—again, almost accidentally—that the NSA had carried out a government program, begun in 1945 (seven years before the NSA was invented and then subsumed under its management), that collected at the end of every work day every single wire sent to or from a foreign country by the three telegram corporations. Practically no one knew about “Operation SHAMROCK”—not even the top executives of the companies. “No witness from the telegraph companies recalled that there had ever been a review of the arrangements at the executive levels of their respective companies,” the document reads.

In one eye-popping passage, the Church investigators write of how, in 1968, a vice president of the telegraph company Western Union “discovered the existence of NSA’s Recordak (microfilm) machine in the Western Union transmission room. The machine was reported to the company president, who directed his employees to find out to whom the machine belonged and what the basis for the arrangement was.”

The basis was meetings between the Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and the companies in 1945 and again in 1947, when the executives agreed upon the program once they were assured by Attorney General Tom Clark they would not suffer criminal liability for participating. The courier, though, who lied that he was from the Department of Defense, said he didn’t know what the basis was, or what was done with the material. The story concludes blandly, “The documents do not reflect whether the machine was removed.”

Wild stuff, right?

What was done with these telegrams was a dragnet—a technologically primitive version of what goes on with “telephonic metadata” now. Then as now, the investigators acknowledged that protecting the secrets of “NSA’s vast technological capability,” if placed under proper supervision, “is a sensitive national asset which ought to be zealously protected for its value to our common defense”—but that “this same technological capability could be turned against the American people, at great cost to liberty.” And then as now, the spooks said if any innocent Americans had their communications spied on, it was only an accident, incidental to the noble work of spying on the bad guys. The Church Committee thundered back, “To those Americans who have had their communications sent with the exception that they were private intentionally intercepted and disseminated by their government, the knowledge that NSA did not monitor specific communications channels solely to acquire their messages is of little comfort.”

And in a related program, carried out between 1967 (when Lyndon Johnson became convinced that antiwar activity just had to be directed by our enemies abroad) and 1973, the NSA received “watch lists” from the FBI, CIA, Bureau of Narcotics, Secret Service and Department of Defense that included “[l]ists of names and phrases, including the names of individuals and groups.” There were 1,200 names in total, with most of the groups “nonviolent and peaceful in nature.” Again, the NSA attempted to drag evidence of foreign influence on dissident activity and civil disturbances out of the various sorts of communications they intercepted. The 1967 riots, and the intensification of antiwar demonstrations, was that era’s 9/11: “A senior NSA official…testified that such a request for information on civil disturbances or political activities was ‘unprecedented’…. It is kind of a landmark in my memory; it stands out as a first.” All told, 2,000 reports were disseminated to other agencies by the friendly NSA, an estimated 10 percent “derived from communications between two American citizens.” But, concluded the Church Committee, “No evidence was found, however, of any significant foreign support or control of domestic dissidents…most…involved rallies and demonstrations that were public knowledge.” Just like President Obama’s panel says they found no evidence that “telephonic metadata” stopped any terrorists plots now.

And, of course, this stuff was carried out with pathological secrecy—in order to protect operational viability, I’m sure the spies reassured one other, but probably as much to hide the serial failures. Who knew if they were breaking the law? Or, as the Church investigators archly asserted, it was “not due to the nature of the communications intercepted (most were personal and innocuous) but to the fact that American citizens were involved.” Communications between two Americans “were classified Top Secret, prepared with no mention of NSA as the source, and disseminated ‘For Background Use Only.’ No serial number was assigned to them, and they were not filed with regular communications intelligence intercepts.”

And then came Nixon. Read on for the refresher on what happened next ...

Notice the ratcheting up, over time, of these practices --- on a bipartisan basis. They all believed it was absolutely essential to our national security to do these things. And they could never prove to anyone that it actually was. But the paranoid atmosphere of the red scare, the blacklist, the infiltration of dissident movements the political spying and sabotage --- those things did get results.

People like to talk about how we need to strike a balance between security and freedom with the secret police powers, as if those who are against these programs are being impractical by failing to understand that life is full of compromises. But the history shows that it's the other way around. These programs do virtually nothing for our national security but it has a chilling effect on civil liberties. And one would not be paranoid at this point to wonder if that "balance" might not be a bug but a feature.

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