Thursday, June 13, 2013

Before PRISM: The Curious History of the US World-Wide Surveillance Network- Part One

by Nomad
Recently many people seemed altogether mortified, shocked and angry when whistle-blower Edward Snowden, former contract employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) supplied both the Washington Post and The Guardian details about two top- secret surveillance operations.

The Snowden evidence describes one operation which was an effort to collect data from Verizon about millions of phone calls. The other operation was called PRISM. In that operation, metadata was harvested from millions of Internet sites. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple were all apparently involved in the PRISM operation. 

Although both programs seem to have been overseen by Congress and a top-secret court, the extent of the operations came as a shock to a lot of people. 

One source describes PRISM like this:
“Its establishment in 2007 and six years of exponential growth took place beneath the surface of a roiling debate over the boundaries of surveillance and privacy.”
What PRISM does is to allow the NSA and the FBI to tap directly “into the central servers of nine leading U.S.Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”
Who, the reporters and public asked, could have imagined that the United States government- for whatever reason- would engage in such violations of personal privacy? Conservative voters feel as though their worst fears about Big Government and about Barack Obama have been confirmed. Many stunned liberals are asking:Why would President Obama launch such an attack on our freedoms?

Perhaps the only truly shocking aspect of the recent whistle-blowing revelations is the fact that anybody should be shocked at all. People who have been paying attention should have known the extent of this type of surveillance.
Perhaps the only truly shocking aspect of the recent whistle-blowing revelations is the fact that anybody should be shocked at all. Everybody -those who were not sleeping-  should have known the extent of this type of surveillance. 

Much- but naturally not all- of the information about these operations had been made public a long ago. The American people (at those who were awake) were warned and chose to ignore the challenge to their civil liberties.. until now. 

The present anger – much of it unfairly directed at the Obama administration- comes a little late in the day. The evidence of these (and even more extensive and intrusive) electronic spying operations has been right under everybody's noses for over a decade. As we shall see in this report it is especially disingenuous for Republicans to bluster now.
The problem of the government’s covert spying on its own citizens began long before Obama, before Bush, Reagan or even before Nixon.

The Shamrock Evolution
During World War II, as a result of wartime censorship laws, all international telegraph traffic was made available to military censors. Military intelligence officials were allowed to review at will any messages going in or out of the United States. However this unparalleled access to private correspondence came to an end as the war concluded.
But it actually didn't.
With the Cold War replacing the fascist threat in Europe and Japan, the Truman administration decided to continue the arrangement as a top secret surveillance exercise in August 1945. This was known as Project SHAMROCK, part of an even larger operation known as Echelon.

The aim of SHAMROCK was to collect all telegraphic data entering into or exiting the United States. That information was passed directly and daily to the intelligence agencies, The Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) and later to its successor, the NSA in microfilm form. From there, any intercepted data that aroused attention could be forward to other investigative agencies like the CIA or the FBI. In its prime, the project, operating out of a front company in Lower Manhattan code-named LPMEDLEY, recovered 150,000 messages a month and all this was accomplished without public knowledge or without any judicial oversight or warrant.

Since all traffic was handled by three main carriers, the Army approached each with an offer they dare not refuse. It was sold under the guise of protecting national security but even then, company executives were skiddish.
They first approached an official at ITT, who "very definitely and finally refused" to agree to any of the Army proposals. The Army representatives then approached a vice president of Western Union Telegraph Company, who agreed to cooperate unless the Attorney General of the United States ruled that such intercepts were illegal.
Western Union not only gave its permission, it stated that Western Union personnel would be in charge of the microfilm processing and would do all of the handling. The Army furnished the equipment and the training only. After the film was developed, it was delivered to the company vice-president and turned over to security agents.
Having succeeded with Western Union, the Army representatives returned to ITT on August 21, 1945, and suggested to an ITT vice president that "his company would not desire to be the only non-cooperative company on this project." The vice president decided to reconsider and broached the matter the same day with the president of the company. The ITT president agreed to cooperate with the Army, provided that the Attorney General decided that the program was not illegal.

These Army representatives also met with the president of RCA on August 21, 1945. The RCA president indicated his willingness to cooperate, but withheld final approval until he, too, had heard from the Attorney General.
As one congressional report indicates, the attorneys for the companies involved had every right to worry about the legality of participating in the program. After all, with the end of the war, there were question about legitimacy of the proposal.

In the end the companies agreed to arrangement with a personal assurance by the Attorney General of the United States that he would protect them from any subsequent legal action. In addition, they demanded that the Attorney General Tom C. Clark immediately undertake efforts to legalize the operation. The report states: 
Apparently these assurances were forthcoming, because the intercept program began shortly thereafter.
In the first years, the companies continued to have serious concerns in spite of assurances by both President Truman, his Secretary of Defense James Vincent Forrestal  and his Attorney General  that the program was "in the highest interests of national security"

Despite the operations remaining a legal gray area, Project SHAMROCK ran for an astounding 30 years. In fact it was finally terminated by the head of the NSA after congressional investigations in the 1970s revealed the full extent of the operations.

Post Nixonian Firestorm
The late 1960s and early 70s brought a sea change to how the American public perceived its leadership. Following the disappointing conclusion of the Vietnam War and the Watergate fiasco (and its subsequent cover-up), many Americans were disgusted by the abuses of power and wanted answers. This critical evaluation tended to focus on the executive branch but there were also demands for a closer look at the intelligence agencies too.

The spotlight was turned on the CIA in December 1974 with the New York Times front --page article by Seymour Hersh entitled "Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. Against Anti-War Forces." The article was explosive to say the least.

The article revealed the full extent of the way surveillance (supposedly designed for national security) was being used to keep track of enemies of the Nixon/Ford administration. Those enemies were not just the Soviets, the Red Chinese, or Cuban leaders. The enemy was.. well, anybody the president decided it was. And as the Vietnam War drew to an end, President Nixon was convinced that the anti-war protesters were his enemies.

Writer John Prados, author of Lost Crusader: The Secret Wars of CIA Director William Colby outlines the allegations in the Hersh article:
 Under that headline came news of Family Jewels; commentaries by academics regarding legality; and revelation that the CIA had carried out "dozen" of illegal activities; among these were wiretapping, break-ins, surreptitious inspection of mail and maintaining "at least"10,000 files on Americans, photographing and following participants at demonstrations and creation of a network to penetrate the antiwar movement."
SHAMROCK, which was confined mostly to electronic traffic to and from the United States, but another project called MINARET had reportedly used “watch lists” to “electronically and physically spy on “subversive” activities by civil rights and antiwar leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Jane Fonda, Malcolm X, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Joan Baez—all members of Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.” According to Almost 6,000 foreigners and nearly 1,700 organizations and US citizens were under investigation as part of MINARET.

In reaction to the firestorm the article created, President Gerald Ford created a blue-ribbon investigating panel, headed by his own Vice-President, Nelson Rockefeller. Naturally this aroused even greater suspicions since Ford’s solution boiled down to the head of the executive branch appointing his second in command to investigate possible abuses by the executive branch. Congress was not buying that and launched its own investigations that eventually involved dozens of committees, but principally the special panels of the House and Senate.
What the committees uncovered in their investigations make Wikileaks look like small town gossip.

Pike and Church
On 27 January 1975, the US Senate established the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, otherwise known as  the Church Committee. Headed by Frank Church,

The following month, on 19 February 1975, the House also created its own committee investigation, a House Select Intelligence Committee, the Nedzi Committee. While the chairman of the committee Democratic Rep from  Michigan, Lucien Nedzi, a strong supporter of the CIA and a former chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence, had strong liberal credentials too. With an excellent background like that, his appointment seemed to be ideal.

That committee ran aground in June when further New York Times articles revealed that the Director of the CIA, William Colby had in fact briefed Nedzi in 1973 (when chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence) about the very operations under investigation. Under pressure by Democrats on the committee, Nedzi resigned.

In July, a new and somewhat enlarged committee was set up, chaired by Democratic Representative Otis Pike of New York. Unlike the Senate investigation, the Pike committee was much more far-ranging and its agenda, much more ambitious.
The CIA and its surveillance operations, Pike said privately, needed to be restrained and major reporting reforms initiated. For its part, the CIA was being torn apart by the battle for supremacy between the executive and legislative branches.

After a series of procedural disputes between the committee and the heads of the intelligence agencies, the situation soon became open warfare. For example, the Pike Committee tried to subpoena AT&T which like Western Union, had collaborated with the government and had allowed the NSA to monitor communications in and out of the country. The committee effort failed when the government declared AT&T “an agent of the United States acting under contract with the Executive Branch.”
According to the White House, this gave the corporation immunity from giving testimony or prosecution.
A CIA website   gives this interesting account:
As for the White House, it viewed Pike as "unscrupulous and roguish." Henry Kissinger, while appearing to cooperate with the committee, worked hard to undermine its investigations and to stonewall the release of documents to it. Relations between the White House and the Pike Committee became worse as the investigations progressed. William Hyland, an assistant to Kissinger, found Pike "impossible."
In August 1975- exactly thirty years after Project Shamrock was set up- NSA director Lieutenant General Lew Allen, testified before the Pike Committee. (As soon as the Congress began to take an interest in the illegal surveillance the then NSA director Lew Allen terminated SHAMROCK. (At least one of the committee members suspected that program continued under a different name.)

In his testimony, Allen confirmed much of what Hersh had reported. He told the members  that “NSA systematically intercepts international communications, both voice and cable.” After some grilling,
Allen also admitted that “messages to and from American citizens have been picked up in the course of gathering foreign intelligence.” In addition, he acknowledged that the NSA used “watch lists” of US citizens “to watch for foreign activity of reportable intelligence interest.”

Eventually, the Ford administration was so frustrated by the Pike Committee that it launched its own counter-attack. One lawyer that was chosen to head the Office of Legal Counsel (which defended the White House’s position in favor of continued warrantless surveillance and the unrestricted rights and powers of the executive branch) was none of than Antonin Scalia.

Scalia repeatedly testified before congressional committees in favor of the Ford's administration's definition of executive powers in times of national emergency, for executive privilege, especially in the area of intelligence.
As one source notes, despite his overall failure to win over the committee (an altogether hopeless task) Scalia’s incisive arguments won the attention of powerful Ford officials, particularly Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s assistant, Dick Cheney.

The Pike Committee’s findings proved to be too hot, too volatile for public scrutiny. In January 1976, committee members voted to release an un-redacted form of their findings. The Republicans, the White House and the CIA director were all outraged and tried to have the report completely suppressed. They pointed out the danger to national security should the information become available.. to the taxpayers who had in effect paid for the report. (The same sounds are being made in Washington by the NSA director today about PRISM.)

On January 29, 1976, The House of Representatives- in what can only be described as scandalous- voted 246 to 124 not to release the report until it “has been certified by the President as not containing information which would adversely affect the intelligence activities of the CIA.” Therefore, the report from the Congressional committee- paid for by taxpayers- would be freely censored by the very people it was supposed to investigate.
Committee Chairman Pike angrily told reporters:
“The House just voted not to release a document it had not read. Our committee voted to release a document it had read.”
That report, in its entirely, was never released to the public.
Ultimately the Church Committee was more successful. Its damning final report, which became a treasure trove for investigative journalists, is even today well worth reading. If nothing else, the details found in the report put the present “scandal” into its proper perspective. Senator Church, who headed committee, eventually concluded that Project SHAMROCK was "probably the largest government interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken." (With the technological advances, programs like PRISM make projects like SHAMROCK seem as crude as peeping in windows from an alley.)

After impressive attempts to stonewall the committee by the Ford administration the Congress finally prevailed. Congressional attempts to assert its authority and to strengthen oversight on the intelligence agencies led to new legislation designed to rein in rogue operations by putting in place a process of warrants and judicial review.

It very nearly didn’t happen at all. One event made the difference. The presidential election of 1976, brought into office an outsider with a mandate to change things. That man is- even today- despised by conservatives for his weakening of the executive authority.

His name was Jimmy Carter.

In 1978 President Carter signed into law the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which created a system of congressional oversight on intelligence agencies. For neo-conservatives, like Cheney and Rumsfeld, this was a colossal blunder. It was putting a naive brand of morality above the practicalities of national defense. Every tool had to be used when it came to defeating our enemies. Privacy was, in a crisis, a luxury.

As evidence, they pointed to Carter's foreign policy missteps, the hostage-taking in Iran, the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets.  When it came to electronic surveillance, Carter had thrown out the baby and left the bathwater.

In Part Two of this two part series we will take a look at one case study of how spying on our allies brought a dramatic and remarkable conclusion to crisis in the Reagan administration. We will also examine a vast system of electronic surveillance which compares nicely to PRISM but was fully operational in 1990s. Even then, numerous warnings were given to the public that their privacy was under threat. And just when this discussion finally seemed about to explode- the very week, in fact- an event occurred which made all debate on privacy obsolete.