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The NSA Doppelganger | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

The NSA Doppelganger


This photograph shows a copy of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order requiring Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis,” to give the National Security Administration (NSA) information on all landline and mobile telephone calls of Verizon Business in its systems. (AP Photo)

What goes around comes around.

The latest news in the National Security Agency spy scandal: that the NSA has been Hoovering up your emails, documents, and connection details directly from the servers of nine US Internet companies. And that, according to NBC News, the government has been collecting records on every phone call made in the United States ever since the passage of the Patriot Act. And they have been doing so with legal immunity. Barack Obama has been helping with that, since well before he was president; and now that he is, he does what presidents do, which is to aggrandize the power of their office by whatever means at their disposal.

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?

The president could comfort himself that few were paying attention. Back in August, Rockefeller Commission member Ronald Reagan had instructed his listeners, “My own reaction after months of testimony and discussion during the investigation of the CIA is ‘much ado about—if not nothing, at least very little’”: just “instances of some wrongdoing with regard to keyhole-peeking,” long since corrected by the agency itself. He claimed his commission’s most important finding—that more Soviet spies were living and working in America than ever—had been buried: instead, “the media seized upon whatever misdeeds we found and played them up possible to confirm the earlier charges and possibly because they thought they made for exciting drama.”

That fall he earned a surprising ally in the argument: Senator William J. Fulbright, whose devastating 1966 hearings against the Vietnam War were so subversive to the Establishment’s amour propre that CBS cut away to a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show rather than continue live coverage. Now Fulbright published an article in the Columbia Journalism Review. He allowed that recent revelations about the CIA might be true. “But I have come to feel of late that these are not the kind of truths we need most right now; these truths which must injure if not kill a nation.” What was needed was “restored stability and confidence.” What the press required was “voluntary restraint” to reaffirm the “social contract.” What the public most certainly did not not need was the media’s present “inquisition psychology.”

In truth, though, the media were proving not very inquisitive at all. The Nation’s own William Greider, then with The Washington Post, wrote at about the same time in Esquire about the scanty coverage of the intelligence hearings, especially after the blanket coverage of Watergate, “There is a strong wish all over town, a palpable feeling that it would be nice if somehow this genie could be put back in the bottle…a nostalgic longing for the easy consensual atmosphere which once existed among the contending elements in Washington.” He noted how “the press essentially tugs back and forth at itself, alternatively pushing the adrenal instincts unleashed by Watergate, the rabid distrust bred by a decade of out-front official lies, and then abruptly playing the cozy lapdog.”

Indeed Abzug’s revelations received hardly any coverage. General Allen’s testimony was buried in back pages (in the Louisville Courier Journal it was trumped by news of a religious community of 177 in Arkansas who pulled their children out of school to await the second coming of Christ). A stunning colloquy between Senator Walter Mondale, the liberal Democrat from Minnesota, with NSA deputy director, Benson Buffham—

Mondale: Were you concerned about its legality?

Buffham: Legality?

Mondale: Whether it was legal.

Buffham: In what sense? Whether that would have been a legal thing to do?

Mondale: Yes.

Buffham: That particular aspect didn’t enter into the discussion.

—was not quoted anywhere at all, even by The New York Times, whose article on the NSA hearing ran on page 81. As for the president, he followed the recommendation of Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and his lieutenant Dick Cheney and closed down further NSA inquiry by extending executive privilege to the officials and telecommunications executives involved. That got no coverage either.

Why? The Washington Post had recently suggested that after the serial outrages of the Vietnam, the My Lai, the secret bombing of Cambodia, Watergate, the energy crisis and all the rest, the public was suffering “a kind of deadening of moral nerve-ends, a near inability to be surprised, let alone disturbed.”

And yet, for all that, Congress acted. In 1978 it passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a bipartisan law (one of its sponsors was Strom Thurmond) banning surveillance without a court order that involved acquiring “the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party.” Though it was pretty soft soap, for all that: judicial authorization was only required within seventy-two hours after the surveillance began.

Subsequent amendments have rendered it all but gone now, of course. Congress still can speak in a bipartisan manner on the subject of surveillance. Only now, they thunder in unison, Quit your bitching! “It’s called protecting America,” Diane Feinstein said. Says her dear Republican colleague Saxby Chambliss, “This is nothing particularly new. Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this, and to my knowledge we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information.”

More Orwellian words have never been spoken. Brave new world, that has such senators in it.

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