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Rick Perlstein at The Nation writes NSA Reform, Then and Now:

So now comes President Obama, proposing “reforms” for the National Security Agency. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones summarizes them as “weak tea.” Obama is responding, of course, to the advisory panel he appointed that released its recommendations about a month ago—which Drum has described as slightly-less-weak tea. Though even that report—for instance, the conclusion that the current system of storing bulk metadata “creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty,” and that “Americans must never make the mistake of wholly ‘trusting’ our public officials”—must have been pretty damned humiliating to President Obama, who has consistently preached to us we have nothing to fear from trusting our public officials at all.

Being, well, me, when the Obama panel released its recommendations about month ago, I immediately thought to pull down from my shelf the Church Committee’s final report from 1976 on spying on Americans to see how its thirty-six page section about the NSA’s abuses of power, and the government’s investigation of them forty-seven years ago, compares to what we’re seeing today. It certainly makes for an interesting study.

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
I’ve written before about how an investigation of the NSA ended up being tacked onto the Church Committee’s probe of the CIA and FBI. The most interesting takeaway for our own moment is that the investigation was quite nearly accidental. It was then fought tooth and nail by an intelligence agency that insisted that merely being called to explain itself before Congress would invite catastrophe; and then, when its principals were finally compelled to testify, defended their questionable activities with unfalsifiable boasts like, in the words of then-NSA chief General Lewis Allen, “We are aware that a major terrorist attack was prevented” by the activities under question.

Sound familiar? So what did we learn then, and what have we forgotten about what we learned then, now?

The basic problem, the Church Committee explained, was that “NSA has intercepted and disseminated international communications of American citizens whose privacy ought to be protected under our constitution.” Most dramatically, the congressional investigators discovered—again, almost accidentally—that the NSA had carried out a government program, begun in 1945 (seven years before the NSA was invented and then subsumed under its management), that collected at the end of every work day every single wire sent to or from a foreign country by the three telegram corporations. Practically no one knew about “Operation SHAMROCK”—not even the top executives of the companies. “No witness from the telegraph companies recalled that there had ever been a review of the arrangements at the executive levels of their respective companies,” the document reads. [...]

What was done with these telegrams was a dragnet—a technologically primitive version of what goes on with “telephonic metadata” now. Then as now, the investigators acknowledged that protecting the secrets of “NSA’s vast technological capability,” if placed under proper supervision, “is a sensitive national asset which ought to be zealously protected for its value to our common defense”—but that “this same technological capability could be turned against the American people, at great cost to liberty.” And then as now, the spooks said if any innocent Americans had their communications spied on, it was only an accident, incidental to the noble work of spying on the bad guys. The Church Committee thundered back, “To those Americans who have had their communications sent with the exception that they were private intentionally intercepted and disseminated by their government, the knowledge that NSA did not monitor specific communications channels solely to acquire their messages is of little comfort.”

And in a related program, carried out between 1967 (when Lyndon Johnson became convinced that antiwar activity just had to be directed by our enemies abroad) and 1973, the NSA received “watch lists” from the FBI, CIA, Bureau of Narcotics, Secret Service and Department of Defense that included “[l]ists of names and phrases, including the names of individuals and groups.” There were 1,200 names in total, with most of the groups “nonviolent and peaceful in nature.” Again, the NSA attempted to drag evidence of foreign influence on dissident activity and civil disturbances out of the various sorts of communications they intercepted.

The 1967 riots, and the intensification of antiwar demonstrations, was that era’s 9/11: “A senior NSA official…testified that such a request for information on civil disturbances or political activities was ‘unprecedented’…. It is kind of a landmark in my memory; it stands out as a first.” All told, 2,000 reports were disseminated to other agencies by the friendly NSA, an estimated 10 percent “derived from communications between two American citizens.” But, concluded the Church Committee, “No evidence was found, however, of any significant foreign support or control of domestic dissidents…most…involved rallies and demonstrations that were public knowledge.” Just like President Obama’s panel says they found no evidence that “telephonic metadata” stopped any terrorists plots now. [...]

Blast from the Past. At Daily Kos on this date in 2010Who Gains from Guantánamo Cover-up?:

Anyone who has even cursorily followed the stories that have emerged in bits and pieces from the U.S. detention center on the perpetually leased chunk of Cuba at Guantánamo Bay knows full well why that monstrous affront to human rights and the rule of law must be shut down. And why President Obama's announcement on his second day in office that the administration was moving to close the facility was greeted with widespread relief and approval, not just in the United States but, most especially, abroad.

Despite delays caused in great part by right-wing opposition and a strange version of not-in-my-back-yardism, Guantánamo no doubt will be shut down eventually, even though it's been obvious for months that the President's original deadline for doing so could not be met.

[S]huttering the place without a comprehensive investigation and public revelation of the details of what went on there since the facility opened in 2002 will not close the books on this dark episode. Full sunlight cannot guarantee that what happened at Guantánamo and the chain of secret CIA prisons will not occur at some future time. But without complete disclosure, especially concerning deaths that occurred at the detention center, it is almost certain there will be a repeat. The administration has, however, apparently decided—in what critics consider the most egregious case—not to follow up despite the fact that someone who was on the scene came forward a year ago to tell what he saw.

Which is why Scott Horton's article in Harper's today is a must-read. Titled The Guantánamo "Suicides": A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle.

Tweet of the Day:

In declarations to courts, NSA said dragnet does provide way to access content.

So it accesses content.

On today's Kagro in the Morning show, the big news event of the day: President Obama's speech addressing proposed NSA reforms. Greg Dworkin's lightning round headline recap! Duck Dynasty premiere tanks. Mathematigal smacks down mansplaining Nature letter. UT RINOs Hatch & Lee help someone get Obamacare! The Jonathans Corner: Cohn, "Obamacare's a 'Bailout' Now?" & Chait, "The Death of the Death of Obamacare." O'Reilly Benghazi derp. Armando on Benghazi mania; Christie's other transportation shenanigans, and recent revelations about yet more NSA spying techniques. Then, a look ahead at the president's NSA speech from Reuters & Ambinder.

High Impact Posts. Top Comments.

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