Considering Edward Snowden

This week in North Philly Notes, Athan Theoharis, author of Abuse of Power, considers Edward Snowden and the questions his revelations raise about secrecy and accountability.

The recent debate over Edward Snowden’s revelations of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) massive surveillance programs raises serious questions about the conflict not only between security and liberty interests but, as important, between secrecy and accountability. These conflicts are particularly highlighted by the post-1970 revelations about the various surveillance programs instituted by the NSA, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during the Cold War era. The rationale then was that the FBI, CIA, and NSA must be accorded wide latitude if threats to the nation’s security interests posed by “subversives” were to be anticipated and prevented. In contrast, the rationale for granting the FBI, CIA, and NSA wide latitude today is to anticipate and prevent “terrorists.” Because the reality of the FBI’s, NSA’s, and CIA’s  surveillance programs during the Cold War years became known decades after their inception—either through congressional hearings of the mid-1970s or the subsequent release of these agencies’ records in response to Freedom of Information Act requests—we painfully learned that ideological criteria defined who was targeted and the duration of the targeting, that intelligence agency officials were emboldened to violate the law, and, ironically, that very few legitimate security threats were uncovered while real security threats were missed. As disturbingly, we learned, for one, that the acquired information (because serving no legitimate security interests or acquired illegally) was thereupon purposefully and surreptitiously leaked (whether to “friendly reporters or members of Congress) to promote the political and policy interests of intelligence bureaucrats and that intelligence agency officials acted without the effective oversight of White House officials and the Attorney General.  

Layout 1The claimed value of the NSA’s metadata program is challenged by our knowledge of one of these Cold War surveillance programs, the CIA’s code-named HTLINGUAL program. In 1953, CIA officials sought the Post Office’s approval for a mail cover program under which they would be allowed to copy the names and addresses of the senders and recipients of mail to and from the Soviet transmitted through the LaGuardia post office. Concluding that this program was not technically illegal in that the mail would not be opened and delivery would only be temporarily delayed, Post Office officials agreed to this request. When conceiving this program, CIA officials had hoped to acquire information about social and economic conditions in the Soviet Union, an objective that would require opening the mail. Without seeking Post Office approval, HTLINGUAL became a mail opening program.

Quite independently, FBI officials in 1958 sought Post Office approval for a similar mail cover program, hoping to be able to identify recruited Soviet espionage agents. Post Office officials referred them to the CIA and they were thereupon advised that Agency personnel were actually opening and photographing the contents of the mail. CIA officials agreed to provide the FBI with copies of the intercepted correspondence. In the 1960s, concerned about the “flap potential” should this illegal program be discovered, the CIA’s Inspector General eventually concluded that the program could continue (in part because the office staffed by CIA officers could be quickly dismantled allowing the CIA to deny that it was opening mail). During this review, CIA officials concluded that the program did not advance the Agency’s intelligence interests (after all, the Soviets censored the mail) but was of interest to the FBI. Questioned by Church Committee investigators about this program in 1975, FBI officials conceded that not one Soviet agent had been uncovered and that 95% of the contents was “junk”—this despite the fact that 215,820 letters were opened and photographed with the CIA compiling a data base of 1.5 million names of “subversive” Americans.

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