When the NSA Was Spying on the Congress

The NSA couldn’t be trusted 40 years ago and it can’t be trusted now.

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Church and List - Chairman Frank Church, D-Idaho, of the Senate Intelligence Committee, holds up a typed list of names and events which were included in the panel's report on CIA involvement in assassination plots, that was released in Washington Thursday. The 3466-page report is unique in American history. 20.11.1975

I was 27-years-old when I saw the secret tally of American citizens that the National Security Agency had put on their "watch list." It was a list of 1960s civil rights activists, anti-Vietnam War demonstrators and those who organized the Students for a Democratic Society and took to the streets during the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968.  Even famous reporters were on the list.

As Claude Raines said in "Casablanca," "Round up the usual suspects." Those of us who were staff members of the Church Committee investigating intelligence agencies back in 1975, we were not totally shocked to see the names – Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Martin Luther King, Bobby Seale, Muhammad Ali and Tom Wicker, to name just a few of the over 1,600 people.

There were many names we did not recognize – criminals, drug dealers, even old-line suspected communists.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

But there were two names we never saw, because they were never given to the Church Committee:  Sens. Frank Church and Howard Baker.

New documents just made public by NSA and George Washington University's National Security Archive now reveal that Church, the chairman of the investigative committee and Baker, a member of both the Watergate and Intelligence Committees, were both put on the watch list and their communications were monitored.

NSA's recent report called these actions "disreputable, if not outright illegal."

If NSA had revealed such explosive information in 1975, all hell would have broken loose. So they chose to lie. There were no whistle blowers then, no voices within the Ford administration that revealed such secrets. Who knew? How far up did this information go? Was it kept just within NSA at Ft. Meade? Did other intelligence agencies know? As chief of staff to Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney dealt with the Church Committee, did he know? 

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Americans Be Worried About the National Security Agency's Data Collection?]

Now, we hear the same 1975 arguments once again from NSA: According to the agency's director, General Keith Alexander, there is "rigorous oversight" and there are "rigorous training programs for analysts." Really, when 40 percent of clearances in the intelligence community go to outside contractors, like Edward Snowden?  When over four million people have security clearances? Do they really believe that there is a great deal of rigor when the collection of metadata rules the day?

Is there real understanding and legal oversight when Deputy Attorney General James Cole maintains that the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures does not apply to the collection of metadata? Cole holds that the Fourth Amendment doesn't protect the phone records of Americans because they are customers of phone companies and don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy for those they call. This is just assembling information indiscriminately and that is somehow all right?

Just as it is legal to have seven years of phone records and all new records stored in a $4 billion facility in Bluffdale, Utah, capable of building intrusive analyses of every American's communications history. And what about emails and tweets and Internet searches and Facebook? (And, seriously, "Bluffdale"?) This will hold 250 trillion DVDs' worth of data. I can't even get my head around that one. And, by the way, don't expect a grand opening with ribbon cutting from our politicians.

According to NSA, everything is fair game, because they aren't recording actual phone conversations. Plus, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is approving the collection. Even though this court has no adversary proceeding, is run in almost total secret and approves over 99 percent of its requests.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

We have watched as budgets of the sixteen intelligence agencies have mushroomed to $52.6 billion plus another $23 billion for the military, doubling since 9/11. They have increased 25 percent since 2006. There are more than 107,000 employees plus contractors. The national security state has been transformed by technology and immense resources over the last 40 years.

There is, some believe, a new definition of privacy and we should all just suck it up and go with the flow. You want the high-tech world, you better just give in to becoming Hoover-ized – as in both the vacuum cleaner and the former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who built files on his political enemies.

What worries me the most is that the NSA has not changed, even after the Church Committee investigation or after the laws were tightened. They have simply found a way around them and proceeded with a blank checkbook and a purported mandate after 9/11 to build a massive Big Brother database that could be easily turned on us.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

If two United States Senators were not safe over 40 years ago and the most distinguished civil rights leader in our history was not immune, what makes us think that we could be protected by our constitution? We now know, from these disclosures, they weren't.

I remember Frank Church had suspicions that this might be occurring. He was one of the most trusting, least paranoid, most patriotic men I have ever known and many of us thought it was out of character. But now we know that he was right and that the battles he fought, and the causes he championed, are not over.

It is time for a new Church Committee, with a full staff and subpoena power, committed to getting it right this time. His legacy deserves no less and those of us who have become older and grayer still believe that the battle we fought so many years ago still matters. It was important then, it is even more important now.

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