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James Bamford Releases DOJ Report On NSA Warrantless Wiretapping From 1976 54

maynard writes: Investigative Journalist James Bamford knows a thing or two more than most about the National Security Agency. Across his more than three-decade long career digging muck out of exactly those places U.S. government intelligence agencies preferred he wouldn't tread, he's published five books and over eighty press reports. At times, this made for some tense confrontations with intelligence officials from an organization once so secret even few members of Congress knew of its existence.

For the last several years public focus on the NSA has been on Bush and Obama era reports of illicit domestic spying. From allegations of warrantless wiretapping reported by James Risen in 2005 to secret documents released to journalists at The Guardian by Edward Snowden a year ago. And smack in the middle, Bamford's 2012 revelation of the existence of a huge, exabyte-capable data storage facility then under construction in Bluffdale, Utah.

Given all this attention on recent events, it might come as a surprise to some that almost forty years ago Senator Frank Church convened a congressional committee to investigate reports of unlawful activities by U.S. intelligence agencies, including illegal domestic wiretapping by the NSA. At the time, Church brought an oversight magnifying glass over what was then half-jokingly referred to as "No Such Agency." And then, like today, James Bamford was in the thick of it, with a Snowden-like cloak-and-dagger game of spy-vs-journalist. It all began by giving testimony before the Church Committee. Writing yesterday in The Intercept, Bamford tells his firsthand historical account of what led him to testify as a direct witness to NSA's wiretapping of domestic communications decades ago and then details the events that led to the publication of his first book The Puzzle Palace back in 1982.
Read on for more.
Bamford writes:

...during the summer of 1975, as reports began leaking out from the Church Committee, I was surprised to learn that the NSA was claiming that it had shut down all of its questionable operations a year and a half earlier. Surprised because I knew the eavesdropping on Americans had continued at least into the prior fall, and may have still been going on. After thinking for a day or so about the potential consequences of blowing the whistle on the NSA—I was still in the Naval Reserve, still attending drills one weekend a month, and still sworn to secrecy with an active NSA clearance—I nevertheless decided to call the Church Committee.

But he didn't stop at the witness stand. Afterward, he continued researching the matter for a book. And the further he dug, the more waves he made. Until someone slipped him a then recently declassified copy of a 1976 Justice Department memo [PDF] detailing a criminal investigation into illicit domestic spying by the NSA. But when agency officials discovered he had that document they took extraordinary measures attempting to get it back. They threatened to prosecute under the 1917 Espionage Act and retroactively reclassified the memo to squelch its contents.

Fearing someone might break into his home and steal the manuscript, Bamford arranged to transport and secure a copy outside of U.S. jurisdiction with a colleague at the Sunday Times of London. It was only upon the 1982 publication of Puzzle Palace that the agency dropped their pursuit of Bamford and his document as a lost cause. That's at least one stark difference between then and today when it comes to whistleblowers — back then, they merely threatened espionage charges.

Yogi Berra famously once said, "It's like Deja Vu all over again." And though the Yankees' star wasn't speaking of illicit domestic wiretaps by the national security state, given a comparison of recent revelations to those detailed by Bamford decades earlier the quote certainly fits. In telling his story of how he published details about the last NSA Merry-Go-Round with warrantless wiretapping, Bamford shows us that our recent troubles of lawless surveillance aren't so unique. It's deja-vu all over again. But if deja vu is like a waking dream, this seems more a recurring nightmare for a body-politic lured to snoring slumber by a siren-song of political passivity.

That old Justice Department memo isn't likely to wake the public from their slumber. But within its pages is a stark warning we all should have heeded. As Bamford notes in that Intercept story, the report's conclusion that NSA lawlessness stems straight from the birth of the agency suggests a constitutional conflict systemic and intentional.

...the NSA's top-secret "charter" issued by the Executive Branch, exempts the agency from legal restraints placed on the rest of the government. "Orders, directives, policies, or recommendations of any authority of the Executive branch relating to the collection ... of intelligence," the charter reads, "shall not be applicable to Communications Intelligence activities, unless specifically so stated." This so-called "birth certificate," the Justice Department report concluded, meant the NSA did not have to follow any restrictions placed on electronic surveillance "unless it was expressly directed to do so." In short, the report asked, how can you prosecute an agency that is above the law?

Here's the "Prosecutive Summary" (PDF).

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James Bamford Releases DOJ Report On NSA Warrantless Wiretapping From 1976

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  • Last straw (Score:5, Funny)

    by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Friday October 03, 2014 @11:22AM (#48056571) Journal

    That does it! I'm not voting for Gerald Ford again!

    • It's not "deja vu", because that implies that at some point, NSA's illegal surveillance of us stopped at some point in time.

      • It's not "deja vu", because that implies that at some point, NSA's illegal surveillance of us stopped at some point in time.

        Originally we only tapped all your phone calls and telegrams.

        • No, no, no. You're phrasing it wrong. It's:

          "We have stopped (only) tapping your phone calls and telegrams"

          See how much more positive that sounds?

  • England (Score:4, Informative)

    by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Friday October 03, 2014 @11:29AM (#48056625) Journal

    Footage released of Guardian editors destroying Snowden hard drives [theguardian.com]

    In two tense meetings last June and July [2013] the cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, explicitly warned the Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, to return the Snowden documents.

    Heywood, sent personally by David Cameron, told the editor to stop publishing articles based on leaked material from American's National Security Agency and GCHQ. At one point Heywood said: "We can do this nicely or we can go to law". He added: "A lot of people in government think you should be closed down."

    I would no longer consider England a safe country to use as a backup for documents that the American government wants back.

    • Is there any place where storing documents would be considered safe at least from spying eyes?

      • The moon.

      • Is there any place where storing documents would be considered safe at least from spying eyes?

        Don't store them anywhere.

        Just publish them. Never wait. Never hold them back.

        There is no longer any benefit or protection afforded by not publishing. If you are accused of having anything, you are already guilty in the eyes of the security police.

        Just publish and hope someone, somewhere cares about it.

    • In fact, England is the worst. It (i.e. those that succeeded in the most recent power grab) -- it tries to be the best boy in the US' class Hegemony 6.0, in the process of the attempt surpassing any other anglo-saxon nation in crude disregard for constitutional and international law, and shamelessly whistling the tune of mega-millionaires.
      On a slightly related note: is there still a bounty for Tony Blair's neck?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 03, 2014 @11:37AM (#48056695)

    In both cases the government moved from the concern of external threats to a belief that the threats were internal.

    It's a symptom of disunity and of a paranoid government.

    • In both cases the government moved from the concern of external threats to a belief that the threats were internal.

      It's a symptom of disunity and of a paranoid government.

      When you're helping to maintain a corrupt status quo, your enemies are internal.

  • What gets me in all of this (I RTFA earlier) are a few sections

    But during the summer of 1975, as reports began leaking out from the Church Committee, I was surprised to learn that the NSA was claiming that it had shut down all of its questionable operations a year and a half earlier. Surprised because I knew the eavesdropping on Americans had continued at least into the prior fall, and may have still been going on. After thinking for a day or so about the potential consequences of blowing the whistle on the NSA—I was still in the Naval Reserve, still attending drills one weekend a month, and still sworn to secrecy with an active NSA clearance—I nevertheless decided to call the Church Committee.

    So over 30 years ago, the NSA was doing the same thing its doing now. When it gets caught it says it stops doing it, yet it continues to do it (yet we didnt shut them down 30 years ago??!?!)

    and this one is a doozy. At the same time the feds are complaining about google and apple using system wide encryption as in their eyes it "puts people above the law" yet at the SAME time the NSA charter puts the NSA above the law

    The report’s prosecutive summary also pointed to the NSA’s top-secret “charter” issued by the Executive Branch, which exempts the agency from legal restraints placed on the rest of the government. “Orders, directives, policies, or recommendations of any authority of the Executive branch relating to the collection . . . of intelligence,” the charter reads, “shall not be applicable to Communications Intelligence activities, unless specifically so stated.” This so-called “birth certificate,” the Justice Department report concluded, meant the NSA did not have to follow any restrictions placed on electronic surveillance “unless it was expressly directed to do so.” In short, the report asked, how can you prosecute an agency that is above the law?

    • The Church Committee also discovered that CIA had people stationed inside every major broadcasting network, in order to monitor and manipulate the information we get. They are supposed to have stopped that kind of activity. Yeah...

      I just assume that the intelligence agencies do what they please and try not to get caught. They will lie, deny and withhold to maintain their programs. And with all the classification, black ops and special access programs, it's nigh impossible to find out what they're doing.

    • I really hated Men In Black---
      that movie stuck in my craw
      So arrogant and smug
      as they tampered with minds
      in parody of due process of law.

      There is a special brand of stupid
      that only affects those who are smart.
      By their own hands they have brought this great evil
      in which they knowingly play a part.

      NSA is to gather blackmail, is all---
      for when and why--- they haven't a clue.
      Just following orders for the almighty buck
      ---they fuck
      their own children, fuck me and fuck you.

      And so to St. Peter I must say
      They learned

  • It occurs to me (aas it should have LONG ago) that when something secret becomes more and more "known" that it is being used as a distraction to help hide the newer "really secret" secret.

    What I am saying is that the NSA is a decoy. Who and what is the new intelligence organization?

  • I read the entire article -- a damn good story if you have time. Aside from the obvious political implications explicitly stated by Bamford, it's interesting to see what a risk he took to write and publish his first book: "The Puzzle Palace", despite intimidation from the government.

    For those who think the two major political parties have been the same on the NSA, it's also interesting to note that the Carter Administration's DOJ declassified the key memo whereas the Reagan Administration's DOJ reclassif
    • yeah the read was really eye opening as a lot of this happened before I was born. I made a post above talking about the parts that really stood out to me, especially the part where the org was built above the law from day 1. I will have to get his books now, Im interested to see the changes from his first book in the 80s to the one from 08
  • A book isn't right merely by being published. It is always wise to be prudent about what you believe.

    However, in this case, the Church Committee is known to have had strong views. It is also a matter of record that Echelon involved all of the Five Eyes members spying on electronic communications. Further, allegations at that time of other spying operations at that time (including telephonic and domestic wireless intercepts) are certainly mirrored by the Snowden Files.

    These matters, and some horribly rudimen

  • by sdguero ( 1112795 ) on Friday October 03, 2014 @02:25PM (#48058055)
    I was just graduating high school, an intern in the IT department of a sizable company in CA, my first tech job. We had an issue with a Unix print server and the IT manager (awesome boss who loved the Grateful Dead and drove an old beetle) called in a friend to consult for a couple days. Being a bright eyed youth with lots of interest in how this grey haired consultant was able to command a $150/hr consulting fee, I asked a lot of questions. And he told me some awesome stories about the early internet. This guy was a battle hardened networking/internet engineer going back to the early 1970s (graduated from MIT in the early 60s), he helped connect the first copper trans-pacific data cables from San Fransisco to Asia. Probably the most interesting stories he told were about what the NSA was doing circa 1980s.

    He said the buildings that house the trans-oceanic data cables were designed from the ground up with small rooms, broom closet sized, that the primary data cables run through. Nobody other than federal agents with code word level clearance were allowed in via a heavy security door that had a guard 24/7. He said that all data traffic entering those rooms left them with a noticable amount of latency (at the time, late 80s he said it was about 10ms), but no hops. He claimed that the federal government had been monitoring internet activity in these data hubs since the dawn of the web.

    I still believe him to this day, and have not been surprised by Snowden's revelations or really any news I see about the government snooping on traffic. The internet started as a DARPA project. It would be stupid to assume that data traversing what is essentially a military network can't be monitored by government entities.
    • by maynard ( 3337 )

      sdguero wrote:

      He said the buildings that house the trans-oceanic data cables were designed from the ground up with small rooms, broom closet sized, that the primary data cables run through. ... He said that all data traffic entering those rooms left them with a noticable amount of latency (at the time, late 80s he said it was about 10ms), but no hops. He claimed that the federal government had been monitoring internet activity in these data hubs since the dawn of the web.

      Mark Klein, former tech from AT

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