The scandal in the revelation that the National Security Agency is scooping up data from millions of phone calls and emails daily is not so much that the surveillance program exists. There have been reports that the NSA was working on a massive data collection network ever since 9/11. The scandal is that a 29-year-old information technology consultant working for a private corporation contracting with the NSA not only was in the loop but boasted that he could snoop on anybody with an email address, including the President of the United States.
Some experts dispute whether Edward Snowden really could hack the President’s email, but there is no longer any doubt that he was telling the truth about the NSA’s widespread surveillance programs. His story sounds like he was on the express lane to the American Dream as a high-school dropout who was able to work his way up to a $122,000-a-year job as a Hawaii-based information analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton, at least until he decided to spill the beans to the Washington Post and the London Guardian.
As Tim Shorrock, author of "Spies for Hire" who writes about the business of national security, told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! June 11, “If Mr. Snowden had access to these kinds of documents, such as these PRISM documents about surveillance on the Internet, as well as this FISA court order, that means practically anyone in Booz Allen who is in intelligence working for the NSA has access to the same kinds of documents. And American people should really know that now we have conclusive proof that these private-sector corporations are operating at the highest levels of intelligence and the military.”
Colleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent and legal counsel in its Minneapolis office whose May 2002 memo described some of the FBI’s pre-9/11 failures wrote for CNN’s website on June 11, “The recent disclosures about the National Security Agency’s massive and aggressive spying on the world, including US citizens, along with other scandals showing Associated Press and Fox News reporters targeted in ‘leak’ investigations, should make us realize that John Poindexter’s plan for ‘Total Information Awareness’ never died: It merely went underground and changed its name.
“When the TIA idea was first proposed by the Bush administration after 9/11, along with a ‘Big Brother’ all-seeing eye logo, it was widely considered a crazy notion, resulting in an outcry. That data collection plan, which involved indiscriminate spying on Americans, was quickly squelched — at least publicly.
“The truth, however, was that it was reborn under dozens of massive data collection and surveillance programs within each of our 16 highly secretive intelligence agencies, under a variety of cute acronyms,” Rowley wrote.
Those agencies increasingly rely on private contractors. Of the 4.9 million people with clearance to access “confidential and secret” government information, the Associated Press reported, 1.1 million, or 21%, work for outside contractors, according to a report from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s office. Of the 1.4 million who have the higher “top secret” access, 483,000, or 34%, work for contractors. Three-fourths of Booz Allen’s 25,000 employees hold government security clearances. Half of those employees have top secret clearances.
The move to a national security state is nothing new, though it has expanded since the 9/11 attacks. Charles Pierce, writing at Esquire.com (June 11), took apart Peggy Noonan’s claim in the Wall Street Journal June 8 that “The security age began on Sept. 12, 2001.” Pierce noted, “The manifestation of ‘the security age’ that is presently under discussion began then, but ‘the security age’ as we know it began during World War II, with the Manhattan Project, and it really got rolling after the war, when the Russians ended up with the bomb and there was hell to pay here. Garry Wills is right in his book Bomb Power. It was the combination of those weapons, and the military-industrial complex that produced them and against which Dwight Eisenhower was right to warn us, that embedded ‘the security age’ in the institutions of free government, and it has operated like rot and termites within them ever since. Everything since has been just technology. The impulse toward ‘the security age’ has been present at almost every level of law enforcement, let alone the military.”
So we’ve had more than 70 years of national security fears chipping away at our personal privacy and civil liberties. A US Senate Select Committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), now known as the Church Committee, shook up the national security establishment in 1975 when it investigated abuses of intelligence gathering by the FBI, the CIA, military intelligence and the NSA during the Nixon administration. It went back to the 1950s and investigated attempts to assassinate foreign leaders as well as the use of intelligence agencies to track anti-war and civil rights protesters as well as critics of the administration.
The Church Committee published 14 reports on the formation of US intelligence agencies, their operations and the alleged abuses of law and of power that they had committed, together with recommendations for reform. More than 50,000 pages have been declassified. President Gerald Ford issued an executive order that banned US assassinations of foreign leaders, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 prescribed procedures for physical and electronic surveillance and collection of “foreign intelligence information” between “foreign powers” and “agents of foreign powers.” The law also set up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to oversee requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the US by federal agencies. The House and Senate created select committees on intelligence to provide oversight over intelligence activities. And Frank Church was accused by right wingers of treason for exposing the problems.
Church, who died in 1984, said of the NSA in 1975: “I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge ... I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, which expanded national security authority.
We shouldn’t expect the President to give up executive powers that arguably can be used to make the country safer. If President Obama unilaterally ordered the NSA to dismantle PRISM, and terrorists later struck the US, there would be hell to pay again, so Obama couldn’t do it for political as well as national security reasons.
It’s up to Congress to take those powers away or at least make the national security bureaucracy accountable in a way they are not now, with secret court orders and briefings that members of Congress may not share with the public.
A good start would be a bill introduced by a bipartisan group of senators that would declassify key legal opinions reached by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that make the gathering of these records possible. The bill is being introduced by Sens. Jeff Merkley, progressive Democrat from Oregon, and Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican from Utah. It’s also supported by Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary chairman from Vermont, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Al Franken of Minnesota, and Republican Sen Dean Heller of Nevada.
Above all, Congress ought to make sure that any official duties — particularly those involving sensitive data — are handled by government employees, not job-hopping private contractors.
National security reform is a more daunting task now that corporations such as Booz Allen Hamilton, Northrup Grumman, SAIC and others have billions of dollars in profits at stake in expanding the national security infrastructure.
President Obama says he welcomes the debate on the tradeoffs between security and privacy. If so, he can thank Edward Snowden for bringing that conflict of interests to our attention.