Cold War Spy Case Offers Lessons for Today

November 4th, 2008 - by admin

Marcia Mitchell / t r u t h o u t | Perspective – 2008-11-04 19:21:11

WASHINGTON (October 30, 2008) — New allegations of illegal eavesdropping have put the NSA once again on the political hot seat. This time, for listening in on phone calls made by American military and humanitarian workers.

Hardly a surprise, given the agency’s history of disregard for the laws that govern who listens to whom and for what purpose.

No surprise either that former NSA head Michael Hayden, now director of the CIA, insists that charges of agency lawbreaking are “ridiculous.”

This is not the first time Hayden, directly or through a spokesperson, has denied lawbreaking on the part of the NSA. He did so at the time the agency was illegally wiretapping targeted members of the UN Security Council in the run-up to the Iraq war, an operation undertaken in a covert attempt to win approval of a resolution sanctioning a preemptive invasion. The ill-fated operation, headlined “Dirty Tricks at the UN” by international media, changed the course of history and proved disastrous for the US image abroad.

In the recently released book, “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion,” Hayden is reported as assuring the nation and the Congress that the NSA operates only within the law, that “everything the NSA does is lawful.”

Security Council members, outraged by the plot leaked by former British secret service officer Gun, would argue the point. Furious about the NSA operation, they tightened opposition to the US and its push for Security Council approval for war. In response, President George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair withdrew their draft resolution, blaming the possibility of a veto by permanent-member France. They neglected to mention the egregious violation of international accords that enraged Council members.

Congress expressed its own outrage toward France. The House of Representatives’ dining room replaced French fries with Freedom fries in a rash of silliness intended to express national indignation.

Hopefully, Washington will take a more appropriate view of these most recent allegations of NSA wrongdoing. And perhaps the US public, so profoundly affected, will take the issues involved seriously. Why? Because they directly impact the rights of privacy and civil liberties of American citizens.

This abuse hits closer to home than the unseemly UN debacle, the truth of which has eluded most people living on this side of the Atlantic. With the publication of her story and Gun’s recent visit to the United States, the NSA’s bizarre violation of international accords and its fallout may help public perception of what’s what in the eavesdropping business.

It is heartening that these new and damning allegations have attracted the attention of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, whose chairman, Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), wants answers from the Bush administration. Not so heartening is the realization that those answers may be predictable denials. Evidence that this might be the case is the NSA’s claim that it is already investigating some of the charges. Again, not surprisingly, the fox guarding the civil liberties henhouse has concluded the charges are without merit.

It would be helpful if Senator Rockefeller and the committee revisited Hayden’s January 2006 remarks to the National Press Club: “Every operational decision the agency makes is made with the full involvement of its legal office.” In that same speech, the former Air Force general told his audience that NSA lawyers were careful about the law “out of a heartfelt, principled view that NSA operations had to be consistent with bedrock legal protections.”

In the contexts of the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Security Act, this country has witnessed extensive posturing, explaining, amending and refining debate about the legalities of a government spying on its own citizens and on those of other countries. In spite of all the discussion, lawmaking and codifying, these latest allegations lead one to wonder if someone isn’t getting the message, and if this country’s intelligence agencies – at least their policymakers – are failing to learn from past blunders.

Today’s underlying problem extends farther back than the run-up to the Iraq war, even further back than Korea and Vietnam. It stops at a Cold War case that mesmerized the country for more than a year. The outcome of that case teaches a lesson for today, if anyone is interested in learning what happens when eavesdropping takes place outside the law.

Soviet spy Judith Coplon, convicted of stealing secret documents with the intent of giving them to her KGB controller, avoided prison after two of the country’s most convoluted and controversial court cases because the FBI illegally wiretapped her conversations with her attorney. Coplon’s going free raised such a brouhaha over illegal government spying that it was generally assumed this sort of behavior was at an end.

Fifty-eight years later, it seems as if it is not.

Marcia Mitchell is co-author with Thomas Mitchell of “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq War” and “The Spy Who Seduced America: Lies and Betrayal in the Heat of the Cold War.”

© 2008 truthout

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