Friday, August 30, 2013

NSA Spying on Congress for Decades

During the drama over the so-called Amash Amendment General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, went to Capitol Hill to lobby against the law. During the course of his lobbying members of Congress responded to his presentations with a reasonable question – can we see our own files?Alexander said no. According to David Sirota of NSFW Corp these exchanges are quite revealing as to how the NSA’s power works in Washington.

Consider the deep messaging of the NSA’s brand. Only forty years removed from the blackmail-tinged reign of J. Edgar Hoover, the NSA has developed an image which implies the agency is vacuuming up more than enough incriminating phone records, emails and text/sext messages to politically torpedo any rank-and-file congressman, should that congressman step out of line.

And here’s the thing: for all the agita intelligence officials express about new disclosures, those disclosures illustrate the sheer size and scope of governement surveillance. That doesn’t weaken the NSA – on the contrary, it serves to politically strengthen the agency by constantly reminding lawmakers that the NSA 1) probably has absolutely everythingon them and 2) could use that stuffagainst them.

Sirota also spoke with Rep. Alan Grayson who told him that in the course of the conversation about the NSA and files they might have on members of Congress said “one of my colleagues asked the NSA point blank will you give me a copy of my own record and the NSA said no, we won’t. They didn’t say no we don’t have one. They said no we won’t.” Dare anyone accuse the NSA of being cryptic?

Of course we already know that it wasNancy Pelosi that killed the Amash Amendment. What we don’t know is whether she did so out of fear of an NSA file, party interests or both. We also know she was involved in insider trading while in Congress. What more does the NSA know about her?

There was also a report by a former intelligence analyst and whistleblower Russell Tice that the NSA wiretapped Barack Obama in 2004. Is there some massive archive of politicians’ dirty secrets somewhere at the NSA? Surely the NSA at least has their metadata – they have everyone’s. It is hard to imagine when push comes to shove and its budget time that the NSA doesn’t take a peek at who they are doing business with in Congress. Intelligence is all about having as much information as possible, that’s the training and that’s the game. Old habits probably die hard.

It was a troubling thought, but I had no smoking gun evidence to support it, until I heard Mark Ames discussing Sirota’s story with Sirota yesterday. Ames referenced a blockbuster story broken by New York Times reporter Scott Shane. Published by the Baltimore Sun, the story Listening in: Though the National Security Agency can’t target Americans, it can — and does — listen to everyone from senators to lovers, provides smoking gun evidence that the NSA has been spying on members of Congress and allowing the information to be used for leverage since at least the Reagan Administration.

“We listened to all the calls in and out of Washington,” says one former NSA linguist, recalling a class at the Warrenton Training Center, a CIA communications school on a Virginia hilltop. “We’d listen to senators, representatives, government agencies, housewives talking to their lovers.”

“Even when they target foreigners, they end up picking up a lot of Americans,” says Mark H. Lynch, an attorney who tracked NSA for the American Civil Liberties Union from 1977 to 1985. Just ask formerMaryland Rep. Michael D. Barnes. His calls to Nicaraguan government officials were intercepted and recorded by NSA – as he learned only after transcripts were leaked by the Reagan White House, he says.

Congressman Barnes became a thorn in the side of the Reagan Administration and the US intelligence community over his opposition to US activity in Nicaragua.

“Reporters told me right-wingers werecirculating excerpts from phone conversations I’d had,” says Mr. Barnes, now a Washington lawyer. He says the calls included one to the Nicaraguan foreign minister protesting his government’s declaration of martial law.

On another occasion, Mr. Barnes says, the director of central intelligence, William J. Casey, showed him a Nicaraguan Embassy cable intercepted by NSA that reported a meeting between embassy officials and a Barnes’ aide. Mr. Casey told him he should fire the aide; Mr. Barnes angrily replied that it was perfectly proper for his staff to meet with foreign diplomats.

Mr. Barnes says he did not object to being overheard. But he said the incidents were a reminder of the potential for the abuse of NSA’s awesome eavesdropping capacity. “I was aware that NSA monitored international calls, that it was a standard part of intelligence gathering,” he says. “But to use it for domestic political purposes is absolutely outrageous and probably illegal.”

So there is nothing new under the sun. Information is power and in political struggles one should not be so surprised that information will be used and abused by political actors. Now solid and reasonable curtailments of NSA’s wildly expansive power are getting crushed in Congress despite widespread popularity in both parties.

What’s going on behind the scenes? Is the NSA using its data for political gain?

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