Last week the New York Times revealed that
the National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly intercepting
telephonic and email communications between U.S. citizens since
9/11. This systemic non-court-sanctioned domestic spying is, of
course, strictly illegal but President Bush quickly and casually
rationalized all of it in the name of "protecting us from terrorism."
Almost immediately the usual outraged congressional suspects (Senators
Kennedy, Schumer, Specter) admitted that they were shocked, yes
shocked, by such a blatant abuse of governmental power and promised
Capital Hill hearings to resolve the matter. Sure.
But to be "shocked" by the recent New York Times
revelations is, frankly, to have been fast asleep for the last 50
years. The private activities of thousands upon thousands of Americans
have been shadowed, followed, monitored, and placed under surveillance
since World War 2 and mostly without any judicial oversight whatever.
The bulk of the domestic snooping has been related to alleged issues
of national security and has been accomplished by the FBI and various
military "Intelligence Agencies" such as those maintained
by the Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marines, later subsumed under
the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). All of these agencies have
maintained thousands of files on individuals and groups of "interest"
for decades without any seriously raised congressional eyebrows.
The NSA got into snooping big time back in 1967 when they started
collecting information on various groups and individuals associated
with anti-Vietnam War protesting. But the closest parallel to the
recent domestic NSA spying is the World War 2 cable intercept program,
code-named "Operation Shamrock." Shamrock was instituted
during the War to intercept cable transmissions between U.S. citizens
and foreign nationals, companies, embassies, and governments. The
intercepts were accomplished with the willing support of U.S telecommunications
companies such as ITT, RCA, and Western Union and the entire operation
was super secret.
Like many of the activities of the NSA today, the federal congress
in the 1940s, and perhaps even President Truman, were blissfully
ignorant of the existence and scope of the snooping program. But
even more importantly, the domestic and foreign cable transmission
intercepts continued AFTER the War and, indeed, for the next thirty
years in almost complete secrecy. No President until Nixon, apparently,
was even aware of the domestic side of the snooping and no legislation
was ever introduced to legitimize domestic cable surveillance. The
program that never officially existed was terminated (supposedly)
on May 15, 1975.
Who says that agencies of government can’t keep secrets, even from
Presidents. The Operation Shamrock secret was kept in a lock-box
for almost thirty years. If the information is compartmentalized
enough, and if the media is compliant enough, secrets can be kept.
Am I outraged by the recent spying revelations? Of course. There
should be no government monitoring of private communications (telephone,
email, cable, etc.) absent prior approval from a judiciary that
demands the highest proof of a national security "risk."
But am I surprised that agencies like the NSA have, again, illegally
snooped on Americans, this time with a presidential sanction? You
must be kidding.
Armentano [send him mail]
is Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford (CT) and the
author of Antitrust
(Independent Institute, 1998) and Antitrust:
The Case for Repeal
(Mises Institute, 1999). He has published articles, op/eds and reviews
in The New
York Times, Wall Street Journal, London Financial Times, Financial
Post, Hartford Courant, National Review, Antitrust Bulletin
and many other journals.