Nuclear Weapons

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.

See all publications
Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear Notebook: Russian Nuclear Weapons, 2023

The FAS Nuclear Notebook is one of the most widely sourced reference materials worldwide for reliable information about the status of nuclear weapons, and has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987.. The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by the staff of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project: Director Hans […]

05.08.23 | 1 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
Video Indicates that Lida Air Base Might Get Russian “Nuclear Sharing” Mission in Belarus

On 14 April 2023, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence released a short video of a Su-25 pilot explaining his new role in delivering “special [nuclear] munitions” following his training in Russia. The features seen in the video, as well as several other open-source clues, suggest that Lida Air Base––located only 40 kilometers from the Lithuanian border and the […]

04.19.23 | 7 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
Was There a U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accident At a Dutch Air Base? [no, it was training, see update below]

A photo in a Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) student briefing from 2022 shows four people inspecting what appears to be a damaged B61 nuclear bomb.

04.03.23 | 7 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
STRATCOM Says China Has More ICBM Launchers Than The United States – We Have Questions

In early-February 2023, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) had informed Congress that China now has more launchers for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) than the United States. The report is the latest in a serious of revelations over the past four years about China’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal and the deepening […]

02.10.23 | 6 min read
read more