Reader's View: NSA overreach has only gotten worse

October 4, 2013 

Last week, Georgetown Law Center in Washington convened a panel of former members and staff of the Church Committee, the special Senate intelligence committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church in 1975-76.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Sen. Gary Hart and a number of us who served on that committee so many years ago gathered to discuss the lessons learned back then that should be applied now. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the dean of the Senate and a new senator in the 1970s, gave the opening address and called for stricter oversight of the National Security Agency and more protections for the privacy of Americans.

What none of us knew on that Tuesday, Sept. 24, was that the NSA Watch List that we had uncovered and investigated in 1975 contained two names: Frank Church and Howard Baker. Two senators were spied upon, and it was kept secret for nearly 40 years.

This was a bombshell that would have exploded across the land back then.

As a 27-year-old, I was assigned to investigate the NSA in 1975 and along with my colleagues was given access to the 1,600 or so names of Americans who were on the Watch List: civil rights activists, anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, many famous Americans.

Among those whose lives were invaded were Martin Luther King, Jane Fonda, Muhammad Ali, the Chicago Seven who organized the demonstrations at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention — and even New York Times reporter Tom Wicker. There were also names of drug dealers and old suspected communists we didn’t recognize.

But the focus of the Watch List was Americans who questioned their government and were considered radicals. There were no warrants, no court proceedings, no checks against violations of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

There was no hint that U.S. senators were on the list.

When it came to Church and Baker — two distinguished and patriotic Americans — it was a deep, dark secret. Imagine if the Church Committee had been told that two of its members were targets of the intelligence community?

The firestorm would have been unbelievable. How far up did this go? Did the CIA know, the FBI, the IRS? Did the Ford White House know or Chief of Staff Dick Cheney, who was our liaison with the Church Committee? When were Church and Baker put on the list? Were their phones tapped, mail opened? Were they followed?

The NSA report revealing this new information does not go far enough but it did call these actions “disreputable, if not outright illegal.”

We were lied to in 1975 and it appears the intelligence community has not learned the lessons of those warrantless surveillances. Plus, the technology has changed — we were concerned about the privacy of pay phones; the word digital was not in our vocabulary; the Internet was a figment of someone’s imagination; cell phones didn’t exist; and Google and Facebook were Jules Verne fantasies.

Church said at the time that the NSA had the potential of being one big, huge vacuum cleaner, pulling in Americans’ private and personal information. The NSA of today makes that look like an antique Hoover.

NSA is building a $4 billion facility in Utah that will hold 250 trillion DVDs worth of information. Excuse me, but can anyone even comprehend what that means, 250 trillion?

What we need now is what Frank Church called for so many years ago and the panel honoring him last week reiterated: to re-establish the rule of law. We must revise the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, put the brakes on cozy relationships between communications companies and the intelligence community, enact penalties for those who lie to Congress and the American people in the name of national security.

It is time for a new Church Committee for the 21st century — a real investigation of the new realities and revered constitutional principles.

Peter Fenn is with Fenn Communications Group in Washington D.C. and is a former Frank Church staffer.

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