Friday, August 12, 2005

Big Brother

Patrick Radden Keefe writing for The NY Times:

Ever since the Congressional hearings of the 1970's, led by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, revealed that the National Security Agency had spied on Jane Fonda, Dr. Benjamin Spock and thousands of other antiwar protesters, the agency has been at pains to assure the public it does not use its formidable eavesdropping apparatus to listen in on American citizens. According to the standard narrative, the history of American intelligence cleaves neatly into two acts: the free-for-all years that preceded the Church Committee, and the responsible years that have followed.

But even as enshrined in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the prohibition on domestic spying without a warrant has always been something of a legal fiction: the standard practice is to go ahead and eavesdrop on the conversations of foreigners, even if the party on the other end of the line is an American citizen. Summaries of these conversations are then routinely distributed throughout the relevant government agencies. The privacy of the American citizens involved is putatively preserved by replacing their names with the phrase "U.S. person" in the summary. ...

Newsweek discovered that from January 2004 to May 2005, the National Security Agency had supplied names of some 10,000 American citizens in this informal fashion to policy makers at many departments, other American intelligence services and law enforcement agencies.

[John Bolton] made 10 such requests between 2001 and his nomination this spring; the State Department as a whole made some 400 during the same period. ...

the Senate has shown little concern over the agency's practices beyond the specifics involving Mr. Bolton. ...

because the issue arose as part of a story about the alleged sins of John Bolton, the controversy will likely fall by the wayside now that the confirmation battle has subsided.

This would be lamentable: the revelations amount to a reversal of what intelligence officials have been claiming for 30 years. Heads of the N.S.A. are famous for saying very little about what the agency does, but the one thing that its various directors, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, have said repeatedly is that they do not eavesdrop on American citizens.

We now know that this hasn't been the case - the agency has been listening to Americans' phone calls, just not reporting any names. And Mr. Bolton's experience makes clear that keeping those names confidential was a formality that high-ranking officials could overcome by picking up the phone.


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