Is the NSA eavesdropping again?

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted July 17, 2000

Back during the Vietnam war, there was no Senator more despised on the Right than Frank Church of Idaho. If an amendment was offered to bring home the troops, Church was in the middle of it. If demonstrations were held against the war, Church was one of the stars. Church, although soft spoken and pleasant looking, was as militant a Senator as ever was elected when it came to opposition to the war.

While pursuing that effort, Church held hearings on the National Security Agency. He revealed in the course of the hearings that the NSA, in violation of U.S. laws, had spied on the likes of Jane Fonda and Benjamin Spock, who were openly giving aid and comfort to the Communists in that era. We castigated Church. Just another example of his pro-Communist sympathies, we said. And we may have been right about that at the time.

But recent developments suggest that Church may have actually been on to something as he tried to establish rules by which the National Security Agency operates. Church saw to it that clear guidelines were established as to what the NSA could and could not do when it conducted its eavesdropping activities.

Well, the shoe is on the other foot now. It seems that the NSA has been collecting data on lots of Americans. They even spied on former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Before you cheer, understand that they were also collecting data on all of us who were speaking out on national security questions. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (known as EPIC) filed a suit under the freedom of information act and learned that the NSA is, in effect, spying on thousands of Americans. This is done in the name of eavesdropping on suspected terrorists.

Say what you want about his failed presidency, Jimmy Carter is no terrorist. Neither are most of the rest of us whose calls are being intercepted. Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, who is the foremost champion of privacy in the House of Representatives, is very troubled by what EPIC has unearthed.

He told Will Rodger of that what EPIC has discovered through their freedom of information action "is only the tip of the iceberg of the vast number of conversations that are apparently picked up by the NSA." Barr is no opponent of intelligence gathering. He has worked for the CIA and later was a federal prosecutor. But he has concentrated his efforts in the past couple of years on the spy satellite system known as "Echelon." But Barr sees this new discovery as going far beyond what Echelon has been picking up.

Before 1975 there were no legal constraints on what the NSA could do. That is where Senator Church stepped in. His efforts resulted in a supposed strict policy that the activities of U.S. citizens in this country could not be monitored except in some very well-defined circumstances. Church was widely criticized on the right for what he did back then. He was accused of tying the hands of the American Intelligence community and playing into the hands of the Communists.

It is hard to view what he did in retrospect, but it ought to be said for the record now that Frank Church was right to be concerned about any administration spying on its own people. Clearly the rules he tried to set up have been violated. What is being done now doesn't just concern possible terrorists or money launderers or drug traffickers. It now concerns any of us who express our views on international matters.

EPIC's David Sobel correctly said, "It's not just a former President, it's not just the First Lady. It is probably all of us. This is the first time real names have been added to what has been a theoretical discussion. It puts a real face on the issue."

Author James Bamford, whose 1982 bestseller "The Puzzle Palace" documented the work of the National Security Agency, said of this recent development that he is concerned because much of the 170 pages of materials released to EPIC have been censored. So there is much we don't know about what is being collected in the name of intelligence. Bamford expressed the hope that the NSA wasn't going back to the "bad old days."

Barr, for his part, is going to try to hold additional hearings on the work of the NSA. CIA Director George Tenet has vehemently denied that any of the intelligence gathering organizations of the U.S. government are operating outside the law. We shall see.

I never, ever thought I would have a kind word to say about Frank Church. And it may well be that he was doing the right things for the wrong reasons. But nevertheless, it has to be said that American citizens should not be spied on by their own government unless it is clear they are linked to illegal international operations. That is what Church said he was trying to accomplish. How that policy gets enforced should be the subject of a major congressional inquiry after the November elections.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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