NSA Surveillance and the Failure of Intelligence Oversight

07.01.13 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Recent disclosures of NSA collection of records of US telephone and email traffic have some unfortunate parallels and precedents in the early history of the Agency that were thought to have been repudiated forever.

“After World War II, the National Security Agency (NSA) established and directed three programs that deliberately targeted American citizens’ private communications,” wrote Army signals intelligence officer Major Dave Owen in a paper published late last year in an Army intelligence journal.

The three programs were Project SHAMROCK (1945 to 1975), which collected telegraph communications;  Project MINARET (1960 to 1973), which functioned as a watch list for terms, names and references of interest;  and Drug Watch Lists (1970 to 1973), which focused on communications of individuals and organizations believed to be associated with illegal drug traffic.  Information about these programs first became public in the 1970s upon investigation by the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, known as the Church Committee.

A capsule summary of the three programs was presented by Major Owen in A Review of Intelligence Oversight Failure: NSA Programs that Affected Americans, which was published in the October-December 2012 issue of Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin.

Major Owen writes that the work of the Church Committee “led to legal restrictions on the NSA’s foreign intelligence authorities, as well as robust intelligence oversight processes to ensure that NSA continued to adhere to these legal restrictions.”

But then he makes an assertion that, in light of recent revelations, can only be viewed as disingenuous or uninformed:

“These [oversight] processes have formed and continuously reinforce an NSA culture that is extremely adverse to any issue that may be construed as collecting on American citizens.”

Major Owen admits vaguely that “this culture has shifted slightly over the last decade.”  But what reader would have imagined that it could possibly extend to the collection of call records and email metadata generated by nearly every American citizen?

“In our view, the bulk collection and aggregation of Americans’ phone records has a significant impact on Americans’ privacy,” wrote Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and numerous Senate colleagues in a June 27 letter to the Director of National Intelligence.

The secret bulk collection of American communication records was, among other things, a colossal error in classification judgment as well as a historic failure of intelligence oversight.

If a fair account of these intelligence collection programs “had been told to the American public at the time when Congress was debating what the scope of surveillance powers should be, it might well be that we would have less public distrust of the government, and maybe even Snowden wouldn’t have done what he did,” said Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies at a forum held at the Newseum on June 26.

“The American people shouldn’t be treated as idiots,” she said.