Charles P. Pierce / Esquire Magazine – 2014-01-23 15:14:13
(January 20, 2014) — The most queasy-inducing part of the president’s big NSA speech last week was this passage:
In fact, during the course of our review, I’ve often reminded myself I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King who were spied upon by their own government. And as president, a president who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.
Is there any doubt, had there been a Dr. King in the past two decades who opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as vigorously as Dr. King opposed the Vietnam catastrophe at the end of his life, that the full might of the modern American intelligence apparatus would have landed squarely on his head? That his metadata would be unusually — How you say? — piquant in the various cubicles at NSA?
That some of it would be strategically leaked to strategically important congresscritters and pundits and reporters? That, upon taking office in 2009, this president would have kept in place most of the programs with which that data on our new Dr. King was collected, perhaps tailoring them around the edges, perhaps installing some more weak-tea oversight than was there before, but keeping the basic philosophy behind the programs embedded in the American government as some sort of “balance” between security and civil liberties? I have none.
In Enemies, his admirable history of the FBI, Tim Weiner describes an episode in the late 1960s in which J. Edgar Hoover found himself frustrated — and endangered — by congressional investigations into the FBI’s surveillance malfeasance regarding Dr. King and the antiwar movement with which he had allied himself.
This has been put in place by Robert F. Kennedy and other liberals who agreed, with Wilentz apparently, that intelligence gathering is an essential part of the “modern liberal state.” (The LBJ Justice Department also was getting nervous about the political fallout of what the FBI had been doing somehow became generally known.) Weiner writes:
Senator William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was threatening to oversee the FBI’s intelligence work; President Johnson warned Hoover to keep a very close eye on Fulbright, whom he suspected was holding secret meetings with Soviet diplomats. A far less prominent Democratic senator, Edward Long of Missouri, had started a scattershot series of hearings on government wiretapping. “He cannot be trusted,” an FBI intelligence supervisor warned.
The argument never changes, and it never has changed, from the moment after World War II when it was determined that the country needed a vast intelligence apparatus, and that, occasionally, because mistakes are made, these various institutions would act in an extra-constitutional manner, but that these mistakes would quickly be rectified by a combination of the good faith efforts of the people who made the mistakes, and the white-hot wrath of congressional oversight. (The press has a role, too, but it must be carefully circumscribed, lest the enemy find aid and comfort there.)
And thus did the intelligence apparatus become so essential to the “modern liberal state” that Sean Wilentz can claim in The New Republic that the lack of fealty to the imperatives of the surveillance community as demonstrated by Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange is an assault on modern liberal state itself.
Nothing is ever new. In 1976, a congressional committee chaired by Rep. Otis Pike of New York explored various malfeasance by the intelligence community. The committee’s support was suppressed by the congressional lapdogs of said community. Daniel Schorr got a hold of a copy and disseminated it, and there was considerable hell to pay. (Schorr resigned from CBS under pressure after refusing to identify his source to a congressional committee.)
As it happens, there was long passage in a draft report concerning the ambitions of the NSA:
CURRENT NSA OPERATIONS
NSA has never fully explained how it operates, and, give the fragile nature of its work, complete disclosure is neither necessary nor desirable. The Committee feels, however, that insofar as how NSA’s operations impact upon the communications of US citizens and corporations, there is a compelling interest in disclosure. Indeed, enough has appeared on the public record, and has been conveyed to this Committee, to indicate NSA’s enormous potential to silently violate the rights of Americans on an immense scale. The flowing discussion focuses upon several apparent problem areas.
The “Vacuum Cleaner” Method
NSA’s work necessarily brings it in possession of the private communications of Americans. This is so because in order for NSA to monitor international lines of communications for foreign intelligence, NSA must intercept All communications transmitted over such links. Former NSA Director Lew Allen, Jr., explained the problem which this presents to NSA to the Church Committee:
“[I]t necessarily occurs that some circuits which are known to carry foreign communications necessary for foreign intelligence will also carry personal communications between US citizens, one of who is at a foreign location. The interception of communications, however it may occur, is conducted in such a manner as to minimize the unwanted messages.
Nevertheless, many unwanted communications are potentially available for selection. Subsequent processing, sorting and selecting for analysis, is conducted in accordance with strict procedures to insure immediate and, where possible, automatic rejection of inappropriate messages.
The analysis and reporting is accomplished only for those messages which meet specified conditions and requirements for foreign intelligence.”
General Allen’s statement, apparently made to assure the Church Committee and the public indicates the enormous potential for violation of personal privacy which NSA possesses.
First, it suggests that NSA is able to monitor virtually every international communication entering or leaving the United States. At present, some 24 million telegrams and 50 million telex (teletype) messages enter, leave, and transit the United States annually, and most of these are sent or received by private citizens.
Millions of additional messages are transmitted over leased lines, including millions of computer data transmissions electronically entering and leaving the country each year. International telephone calls are yet another potential source of intelligence.
This was 1976. Nothing changes, except the technology. Notice the quaint references to “telegrams” and “telex” messages. A decade earlier, when national security regrettably required that Dr. King be wiretapped, it was bugs in hotel rooms.
There always are threats that require us to make “sacrifices” in order to “balance” the surveillance imperative with the Bill of Rights. So this is as good a way as any to remember today Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., victim of the surveillance state.
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