So now comes President Obama, proposing “reforms” for the National Security Agency. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones summarizes them as “weak tea.” Obama is responding, of course, to the advisory panel he appointed that released its recommendations about a month ago—which Drum has described as slightly-less-weak tea. Though even that report—for instance, the conclusion that the current system of storing bulk metadata “creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty,” and that “Americans must never make the mistake of wholly ‘trusting’ our public officials”—must have been pretty damned humiliating to President Obama, who has consistently preached to us we have nothing to fear from trusting our public officials at all.
Me being, well, me, when the Obama panel released its recommendations about month ago, I immediately thought to pull down from my shelf the Church Committee’s final report from 1976 on spying on Americans to see how its thirty-six page section about the NSA’s abuses of power, and the government’s investigation of them forty-seven years ago, compares to what we’re seeing today. It certainly makes for an interesting study.
I’ve written before about how an investigation of the NSA ended up being tacked onto the Church Committee’s probe of the CIA and FBI. The most interesting takeaway for our own moment is that the investigation was quite nearly accidental. It was then fought tooth and nail by an intelligence agency that insisted that merely being called to explain itself before Congress would invite catastrophe; and then, when its principals were finally compelled to testify, defended their questionable activities with unfalsifiable boasts like, in the words of then-NSA chief General Lewis Allen, “We are aware that a major terrorist attack was prevented” by the activities under question.
Sound familiar? 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.”