The National Snoop Agency (NSA)

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.

December 19, 2005