NSA headquarters in Fort Meade circa 1950. (Wikimedia Commons)
The standard justification for the National Security Agency’s recently disclosed domestic data-collection program—it doesn’t break any laws—makes me think of Michael Kinsley’s observation that what’s truly scandalous is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal. It should make us all less comfortable, not more, if it’s true that the wide-ranging data-collection programs exposed by Edward Snowden received the blessing of all three branches of the federal government.
Many commentators have argued, as Thomas Friedman did last week in The New York Times, that virtually any domestic surveillance by agencies like the NSA is legitimate in the post-9/11 world. But this misses the longer history: nearly every tool for domestic surveillance that the US intelligence community has attempted to use since 9/11 was on its wish list decades before the attacks. And The Nation has been there to track those tools every step of the way.
In 1966, New York Post journalist Anthony Prisendorf wrote about the Bureau of the Budget’s attempts to create a National Data Center, which would centralize the government’s sprawling information about every single American. The backlash was fierce. Prisendorf quotes one analyst from, of all places, the RAND Corporation—described in a 1959 Nation exposé as a think tank “set up to mask a relationship between the Air Force and the scientists which either or both did not care to make explicit”—who noted that if the data collection capabilities were made available to a future administration hostile to civil liberties “it would make for an extremely efficient police state.” Prisendorf added:
Centralizing government files would eliminate perhaps the best safeguard of personal privacy—bureaucracy. Compiling all that is recorded about an individual is now often a difficult and, consequently, a discouraging task. If the National Data Center were established, the mere push of a button would end all that.
Moreover, he argued, the existence of the data center “would lead to pressures—within and outside the federal government—for the creation of a Personal Data Bank.” The proposal for the National Data Center was dropped a few years later because of lack of public support—and after public hearings in Congress raised questions about its constitutionality. But the NSA plays a long game: it is currently building a massive data accumulation center in the Utah desert that makes the 1960s proposal look like child’s play. NSA whistleblower William Binney—profiled in The Nation last month by Tim Shorrock—has claimed that the Utah facility is intended for storing precisely the kind of personal information files that opponents of the National Data Bank in the 1960s feared the plan could lead to. There were no public hearing in Congress this time around, nor any hint that in a democracy there should be some input from the public whose privacy is in question.