Created in secret during the Cold War in 1952, the National Security Agency had a nickname befitting its shadowy mission: “No Such Agency.”
But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, the NSA confirmed for the first time that it operates a major listening post near Yakima that monitors e-mail, phone calls and other private communications to and from the West Coast – sweeping the skies in a constant search for enemies.
Now, NSA’s mission is again in the spotlight with recent revelations by the New York Times that President Bush secretly gave a green light to the agency in 2002 to conduct warrantless searches on American citizens – bypassing a federal court set up in 1978 to consider government surveillance requests. The Senate begins hearings Monday on NSA’s controversial new powers.
The press and public have never been allowed to visit NSA’s $3.6 million Yakima Research Station, built in 1970 on the western edge of the U.S. Army’s 261,000-acre Yakima Training Center, a huge missile and tank exercise range in Eastern Washington. The NSA satellite dishes are partially visible off Interstate 82 north of Yakima, but the Army’s Web site makes no mention of the spy post.
NSA has a similar installation at Sugar Grove, W.Va., covering the East Coast, plus thousands of other listening posts worldwide. Its biggest U.S. stations are placed to listen in on major downlinks for commercial satellites, including a huge cluster of parabolic dishes pointed skyward on a bluff at Brewster, Wash.
The White House defends NSA’s warrantless searches as a necessary and legal tool to search for terrorists on U.S. soil. The Congressional Research Service has questioned their legality, and civil libertarians have sued to stop them, saying they are unconstitutional.
The NSA remains tight-lipped about the details, including what goes on at the Yakima station.
“Because the program remains highly classified, it would be irresponsible of us to discuss operational issues,” said NSA spokeswoman Kim Schuchardt in an e-mail response to a request for information. NSA also denied a Spokesman-Review request to visit the Yakima site.
The commander of the U.S. Army firing range where the NSA facility is located was equally noncommittal. Lt. Col. Frederick Nohmer said only NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., could discuss it.
Americans should be wary of NSA’s “Orwellian” powers, according to James Bamford, a lawyer and investigative reporter who has written two books on the agency.
“They should be very concerned about warrantless surveillance. NSA is the most powerful agency on the planet,” Bamford said.
NSA has direct access to key telecommunications switches that carry many of America’s daily phone calls and e-mail messages. The agency has more employees – roughly 58,000 – than the FBI and CIA combined. Its stations can analyze 2 million communications intercepts an hour, searching for key words and phrases with supercomputers. They can hold 5 trillion pages of text – a stack of papers 150 miles high – according to Bamford’s research.
Data on foreigners may be kept forever, while the law says information on Americans collected in NSA’s computers can be kept for a year. Bamford, using agency sources and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, estimates that 7,000 people overseas and 500 people inside the United States are being spied on at a given time.
New York Times reporter James Risen, in his new book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” also says roughly 500 Americans are being spied on at any given time. However, NSA whistleblower Russell Tice, an intelligence agent until May 2005, told ABC News last month that the number of Americans subject to NSA eavesdropping could be in the millions – especially if they phoned or e-mailed overseas. Tice lost his longtime NSA job when he began to speak out about the surveillance programs.
Bamford has defended NSA against European charges that it engaged in corporate espionage on behalf of U.S. companies in Echelon, a cooperative spying program of the United States, Canada and United Kingdom. Echelon includes the Yakima Station, according to a 2001 European Parliament report.
NSA even held a book signing for Bamford when his second book, the bestseller “Body of Secrets,” was published in 2001.
But now, due to his concerns over NSA’s expanded civilian surveillance, Bamford is a plaintiff in a Jan. 16 lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights seeking a halt to the practice.
“They are doing something I think is very illegal. I’ve defended them before, but I’m going to go after them when I think they’re doing something wrong,” Bamford said.
“This goes to the heart of our Constitution,” said Doug Honig of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. “They are saying the president can do anything in the name of national security.”
The White House has mounted a vigorous defense of the NSA program, saying it is carefully limited in scope and protects the civil liberties of Americans.
It’s an effort to “learn of communications, back and forth, from within the United States to overseas members of al-Qaida,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said at a Dec. 19 press conference. “This is not about wiretapping everybody.”
The current NSA controversy is a flashback to the 1960s and ‘70s, when NSA, the CIA and the FBI were caught illegally spying on journalists, congressmen and peace activists. One NSA program, Minaret, spied on folksinger Joan Baez and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who were monitored and placed on a Pentagon “watch list.” Quakers who opposed the Vietnam War were singled out for surveillance as well.
Sen. Frank Church, the late Idaho Democrat, held hearings in 1975 that exposed the abuses, and Congress eventually passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to rein in the agencies. A secret federal FISA court was established in 1978 to rule on surveillance warrants. In 2004, the court approved 1,758 requests for secret surveillance – an all-time high – and denied none, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. New numbers for 2005 will be published in FISA’s annual report later this year.
The FISA law includes a major loophole allowing NSA to monitor any American who leaves the country and to place their names along with foreigners’ on a secret terrorist “watch list.”
Church warned the public of NSA’s potential for abuse. While the agency effectively monitors international communications signals, its technology “could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left. … There would be no place to hide,” Church said in 1975.
The Bush administration is ignoring an important check on NSA by sidestepping the FISA court, Bamford said.
“Previously, if your name or mine got into a NSA computer, they would have to convince a FISA judge of probable cause to believe we were someone associated with a terrorist group. Now, they (NSA) are making those decisions themselves, and it’s very dangerous,” Bamford said.
At the time of the Church hearings three decades ago, NSA was eavesdropping on phones and telegrams. Now, with major advances in technology, the potential surveillance is far more intrusive, critics say.
“Now, NSA can get into a person’s mind. It can eavesdrop on personal and work e-mails, what you are searching for and reading on the Web, your Blackberry messages, cell phones, hard-line telephones, everything. Back then, when you wrote something down, NSA couldn’t read it – it went into a mailbox. That’s no longer true,” Bamford said.
Recent polls show Americans have misgivings about NSA surveillance. According to a Jan. 6 Associated Press/Ipsos poll, 56 percent of those surveyed said the administration should be required to get a warrant before monitoring phone and Internet communications. Some 42 percent said Bush should be allowed to proceed without a warrant, and 2 percent were uncertain.
Northwest politicians, including some of the most conservative members of Congress, also have misgivings about NSA’s reach.
Rep. Butch Otter, R-Idaho, is troubled by the warrantless searches but is waiting for the administration to make its case to Congress, said spokesman Mark Warbis. “Like with the Patriot Act, he (Otter) has problems whenever judicial oversight is inadequate,” Warbis said.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said this week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings will give Congress a chance to question White House officials. “It is important that we evaluate all of the facts before pointing fingers,” Craig said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is the only Northwest politician with a seat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He was not briefed on the classified NSA surveillance when the White House informed ranking committee members in 2003, according to his staff.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., the intelligence committee’s vice chairman, said recently the administration prohibited the ranking members from sharing any information about the NSA program with their staffs and other members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
The president has gone too far, Wyden said last week.
As Congress takes up the issue, a bipartisan group on the Senate intelligence committee is going to insist on a serious debate about wiretapping, Wyden said.
“This is about the Bill of Rights. … I think we can have a strong executive who can lead the relentless fight we need to have against terrorism and still protect people’s civil liberties,” he added.
Some NSA insiders, troubled by the new surveillance program and its potential to damage the agency’s reputation, leaked the information to the press, Bamford said.
His sources say the White House and NSA should have gone to Congress or the courts to try to get the law changed if they thought warrantless searches were justified.
“You are supposed to have three branches of government in our democracy. Those are the checks and balances. They took the law into their own hands,” Bamford said.
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