6:24 a.m. June 20, 2013

NSA Whistleblowers For Dummies, Part One

"We should dismantle every intelligence agency in this country piece by piece, brick by brick, nail by nail.”

— Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Oakland), 1975

The NSA spy scandal seems like a bolt out of the blue; some people are acting like the end of the world is nigh, as if the PRISM slides were prophesied in the Book of Revelations. It’s certainly bringing out the weird in a lot of folks, and some baffling displays of heroics in others. Baffling because one expects only bluster and affected bravery — it’s hard, after distrusting the surface for so long, to accept the surface of the Edward Snowden story. It’s an unfamiliar surface too, which is partly why a lot of us found ourselves groping for interpretations and counter-interpretations of this incredible story, something to make it more familiar.

But one thing you learn by going back to the last time we saw so many leaks and revelations — in the 70's — is that the surface is where it's at, for now at least.

The first time Americans ever heard about the existence of the National Security Agency was in 1975, more than two decades after the NSA had been listening in on everyone else. The Church and Pike Committee hearings revealed the NSA’s existence, and the snooping programs run on American antiwar dissidents placed on a “watchlist” along with another NSA program to “vacuum” up all electronic communications with the cooperation of major American companies. Some reports said that the NSA spied on 1,200 Americans and 400 groups — but a later study by the Baltimore Sun upped the number to 75,000 Americans that the NSA collected files on.

Twenty-seven antiwar activists sued the NSA after the Church Committee revelations, but in 1978 their case was tossed out by Judge Roger Robb, who ruled that state secrets privilege was “absolute” and outranked whatever privacy concerns the plaintiffs had. Robb went further and ruled that the NSA was not even required to confirm or deny that it monitored specific Americans or American organizations because disclosing that information “would disclose NSA capabilities and other valuable intelligence information to a sophisticated intelligence analyst.”

One of the antiwar activists spied on was Joan Baez, who filed a FOIA lawsuit against the NSA. The NSA admitted in an affidavit that it "holds an unspecified numbers, of communications... either to plaintiff, from plaintiff, or about plaintiff” — that plaintiff being Joan Baez — but then it quickly demanded that the federal judge, William Bryant, seal the NSA’s affidavit from the public on national security grounds. The NSA was most worried about the part of the affidavit listing the index of files it kept on Baez — the metadata — which the NSA claimed would expose their methods. As reported in the AP on November 14, 1978:

"Damaging as release of the documents themselves would be, release of the...index would be even more damaging to the national security," the NSA said. "This is because the inferences a foreign observer might draw from the documents are made explicit" in specified paragraphs.

During the Reagan years, the NSA reportedly spied on at least one liberal US Congressman opposed to Reagan’s dirty wars in Central America — Democrat Michael Barnes of Maryland, as reported in the 1995 "Baltimore Sun" story:

[Rep. Barnes’] calls to Nicaraguan government officials were intercepted and recorded by NSA - as he learned only after transcripts were leaked by the Reagan White House, he says.

"Reporters told me right-wingers were circulating excerpts from phone conversations I'd had," says Mr. Barnes, now a Washington lawyer. He says the calls included one to the Nicaraguan foreign minister protesting his government's declaration of martial law.

On another occasion, Mr. Barnes says, the director of central intelligence, William J. Casey, showed him a Nicaraguan Embassy cable intercepted by NSA that reported a meeting between embassy officials and a Barnes aide. Mr. Casey told him he should fire the aide; Mr. Barnes angrily replied that it was perfectly proper for his staff to meet with foreign diplomats.

Mr. Barnes says he did not object to being overheard. But he said the incidents were a reminder of the potential for the abuse of NSA's awesome eavesdropping capacity.

"I was aware that NSA monitored international calls, that it was a standard part of intelligence gathering," he says. "But to use it for domestic political purposes is absolutely outrageous and probably illegal."

Other Americans whom the NSA snooped on: Martin Luther King, Jr., Abbie Hoffman, "New York Times" reporter Harrison Salisbury, and Palestinian rights attorney Abdeen Jabara. During the Nixon years, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird used the NSA to spy on Henry Kissinger.

Even the DEA sued the NSA in the mid-1990s, accusing the agency of snooping in on DEA agents’ communications in order to find out who their overseas informants were, and co-opt them for their own purposes. It was a classic case of predators turning against each other and eating their own:

An April 1996 letter to [DEA] agents by Horn and Leighton, details the 
allegation of wiretapping against the agent in Burma.

Horn's residence "was the target of a U.S. Government Agency-sponsored 
electronic audio intercept," it said. "Horn had occasion to see a cable 
containing his words in quotation marks, that he had spoken to another 
DEA agent, set forth exactly as stated..."

The suit also reports alleged wiretaps against DEA agents in the Dominican 
Republic from 1987 to 1990, in May 1993 and September 1994 at the Bangkok, 
Thailand office; at the Guatemala City office in 1984, 1985 and from 1987 
to 1989; and in an unidentified location in April 1987.

Thanks to the courts, far less is known about what the NSA was doing all those years compared to what we know about the CIA and FBI’s spying activities. Even though, as Sen. Church said when he first disclosed illegal NSA spying on Americans in 1975, the NSA runs by far the largest spying operation in the government.

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To really get your nails into the story though, you need to go back another decade, to 1966-7, when "Ramparts" magazine started exposing covert CIA programs, and the CIA’s reaction to the story. You can trace many of today’s worst anti-democratic government policies and programs involving secrecy and whistleblowers to the CIA’s illegal programs in the 60s, and the solutions the CIA came up with to stop leaks and intimidate future leakers and the media. This story will mostly cover the period from LBJ’s last years in office through Reagan-Bush Sr. The most surprising —and demoralizing — moment comes in the early Reagan years, when for reasons that have never been explained or accounted for, the ACLU played a very dubious and damaging role as wingman for Reagan’s CIA.

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Part Two: The CIA’s attacks on "Ramparts" magazine would make for grim reading if not for the comic genius of Warren Hinckle.