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Nothing New About NSA Spying on Americans

The big puzzle is why anyone is shocked that President Bush eavesdropped on Americans. The National Security Agency for decades has routinely monitored the phone calls and telegrams of thousands of Americans. The rationale has always been the same, and Bush said it again in defending his spying, that it was done to protect Americans from foreign threat or attack. The named targets in the past have been Muslim extremists, Communists, peace activists, black radicals, civil rights leaders, and drug peddlers.

Even before President Harry Truman established the NSA in a Cold War era directive in 1952, government cryptologists jumped in the domestic spy hunt with Operation Shamrock. That was a super secret operation that forced private telegraphic companies to turn over the telegraphic correspondence of Americans to the government. The NSA kicked its spy campaign into high gear in the 1960s. The FBI demanded that the NSA monitor antiwar activists, civil rights leaders, and drug peddlers. The Senate Select Committee that investigated government domestic spying in 1976 pried open a tiny public window into the scope of NSA spying. But the agency slammed the window shut fast when it refused to cough up documents to the committee that would tell more about its surveillance of Americans. The NSA claimed that disclosure would compromise national security. The few feeble Congressional attempts over the years to probe NSA domestic spying have gone nowhere. Even though rumors swirled that NSA eyes were riveted on more than a few Americans, Congressional investigators showed no stomach to fight the NSA’s entrenched code of silence.

There was a huge warning sign in 2002 that government agencies would jump deeper into the domestic spy business. President Bush scrapped the old 1970s guidelines that banned FBI spying on domestic organizations. The directive gave the FBI carte blanche authority to surveill, and plant agents in churches, mosques, and political groups, and ransack the Internet to hunt for potential subversives, without the need or requirement to show probable cause of criminal wrongdoing. The revised Bush administration spy guidelines, along with the anti-terrorist provisions of the Patriot Act, also gave local agents even wider discretion to determine what groups or individuals they can investigate and what tactics they can use to investigate them. The FBI wasted little time in flexing its new found intelligence muscle. It mounted a secret campaign to monitor and harass Iraq war protestors in Washington D.C. and San Francisco in October 2003.

Another sign that government domestic spying was back in full swing came during Condoleezza Rice’s finger point at the FBI in her testimony before the 9/11 Commission in 2004. Rice blamed the FBI for allegedly failing to follow up on its investigation of Al-Qaeda operatives in the United States U.S. prior to the September 11 terror attacks. That increased the clamor for an independent domestic spy agency. FBI Director Robert Mueller made an impassioned plea against a separate agency, and the reason was simple. Domestic spying was an established fact that the FBI, and the NSA had long been engaged in it.

The September 11 terror attacks, and the heat Bush administration took for its towering intelligence lapses, gave Bush the excuse to plunge even deeper into domestic spying. But Bush also recognized that if word got out about NSA domestic spying, it would ignite a firestorm of protest. Fortunately it did. Despite Bush’s weak, and self-serving national security excuse that it thwarted potential terrorist attacks, none of which is verifiable, the Supreme Court, the NSA’s own mandate, and past executive orders explicitly bar domestic spying without court authorization. The exception is if there is a grave and imminent terror threat. That’s the shaky legal dodge that Bush used to justify domestic spying.

Bush, and his defenders, discount the monumental threat and damage that spying on Americans poses to civil liberties. But it can’t and shouldn’t be shrugged off. During the debate over the creation of a domestic spy agency in 2002, even proponents recognized the potential threat of such an agency to civil liberties. As a safeguard they recommended that the agency not have expanded wiretap and surveillance powers or law enforcement authority, and that the Senate and House intelligence committees have strict oversight over its activities.

These supposed fail-safe measures were hardly ironclad safeguards against abuses, but they understood that domestic spying is a civil liberties nightmare minefield that has blown up and wreaked havoc on American’s lives in the past. The FBI is the prime example. During the 1950s and 1960s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover kicked FBI domestic spying into high gear. FBI agents compiled secret dossiers, illegally wiretapped, used undercover plants, and agent provocateurs, sent poison pen letters, and staged black bag jobs against black activists and anti-war groups.

Bush’s claim that domestic spying poses no risk to civil liberties is laughable. Congress should demand that Bush and the NSA come clean on domestic spying, and then promptly end it.

EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON is a columnist for BlackNews.com, an author and political analyst.

 

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