NSA scandals and leaks: Deja vu all over again?

Four decades ago, just like now, journalists and congressional investigators revealed that the NSA, CIA and FBI were illegally eavesdropping on Americans’ telephone calls and using the information against dissidents and war protestors.

But rather than crack down on abuse of power by intelligence agencies, the government went after leakers of secret information about the abuses, just like now.

Rep. Otis Pike in 1975 (NYTimes)

Rep. Otis Pike in 1975 (NYTimes)

The key figure in uncovering abuses was Rep. Otis Pike, a conservative Democrat from Long Island, who headed the 1975 House Select Committee on Intelligence and was responsible for the Pike Committee Report on secret intelligence agencies.   All this was brought to mind by an excellent article on Pike by Mark Ames of PandoDaily.

The American public was in a mood to reform abuses of power in the wake of the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.  Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote a front-page article in the New York Times telling how the Central Intelligence Agency, in violation of its charter, conducted intelligence operations during the Nixon administration directed against American anti-war and dissident groups.

The uproar resulted in creation of three investigative bodies – the Ford administration’s in-house Rockefeller Commission, a select Senate committee headed by Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, and a select House comittee headed by Otis Pike.  The Church committee’s reports on CIA involvement in assassinations and attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, but, as Ames noted, the Pike committee asked the more fundamental questions.

What was America’s intelligence budget?  What was the money being spent for?  Were taxpayers getting their money’s worth?  How did the CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies think their purposes were?  Were they successful in accomplishing those purposes?

Pike’s committee soon documented that Hersh’s reporting was correct.  They determined that the actual U.S. intelligence spending was much larger than Congress knew.  And, in Pike’s opinion, the U.S. received little value for the money.  The CIA did not foresee the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus or the 1974 military coup in Portugal.

I thought at the time that the National Security Agency was relatively harmless compared to the CIA.   The latter engaged in subversion and political conspiracies; the former merely listed to foreign radio traffic and engaged in code-breaking.  But, as Pike revealed and I later came to understand, the NSA was the most dangerous and out-of-control of them all.

U.S. nuclear submarines entered Soviet territorial waters on NSA missions, and did not always go undetected.  Once a U.S. Navy sub entered the harbor of Vladivostok, which is on the Pacific, to tap cables carrying communications with Moscow.   Imagine a Soviet sub in San Francisco Bay, and you can see how the NSA put the U.S. at risk of war.

Other intelligence agencies in that they were authorized by law and, at least in theory, limited to the powers given them by law.  The NSA was authorized by President Truman in a secret directive, and its very existence was kept secret for 10 years.  The joke was that NSA stood for “no such agency.”

An NSA spokesman refused to allow Pike to see Truman’s directive, except at a special location away from the Senate and on condition that the wording of the charter would not be entered into the congressional record—a condition he indignantly refused to accept.  It was an outrage, he said, that the U.S. taxpayer was asked to fund an organization whose very mission was kept secret.  The NSA’s budget greatly exceeds the budget of any of the other agencies.

U.S. officials cooperated in full with the Church committee, whose findings concerned CIA excesses and abuses, but began to stonewall the Pike committee, whose findings questioned their fundamental means of operation.  Ames said Michael Rogovin, special counsel to the CIA, phoned the committee and warned, “Pike will pay for this, you wait and see.  We’ll destroy him for this.”  He also quoted Rogovin as saying, “I’m serious.  There will be retaliation.”

The Pike committee did issue a report, but the House of Representatives voted to suppress it.  CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr obtained a copy and, when CBS refused to let him report on its contents, he arranged for parts of it to be published by the Village Voice newspaper.   The House of Representatives conducted an investigation of the leak, and Pike was treated as a loose cannon who shouldn’t have been trusted with confidential information.

Pike had been mentioned as a possible candidate for Senate from New York, and Church as a possible U.S. presidential candidate.  Their support quickly faded.  Pike faced strong opposition in his home district.  He was re-elected in 1976, but declined to run for re-election in 1978.  Church was defeated by a right-wing Republican for re-election in 1980.  CBS fired Schorr and, although he worked in journalism for decades longer, he never got an equivalent job.

Rep. Bella Abzug, a Manhattan Democrat who headed a sub-committee to investigate telephone companies’ complicity in illegal eavesdropping, ran for the Senate in 1976, but was defeated in the Democratic primary by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

I cannot say whether these events are connected or, if so, whether the connection had anything to do with Rogovin’s threat.   All I can say is that going up against the NSA and CIA is risky business.

Ames wrote that the FBI resumed spying on radicals and war protestors, and President Ronald Reagan authorized the CIA to conduct intelligence operations in the United States against “terrorists.”  Since then the scale and scope of secret intelligence operations has mushroomed, many of them subcontracted to private companies.

A couple of years back Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin reported that there are now so many secret intelligence agencies and subcontractors that literally no one knows what they all are.

There is a phrase, “deep government,” that refers to those parts of the government whose members continue year after year, decade after decade, regardless of who is in office or which political party is in power.  The surface government decides questions such as abortion rights, gay marriage, gun control or drug legalization, but the deep government decides fundamental questions involving political and economic power.  The secret intelligence agencies are part of this deep government and, as the experience of the Pike committee shows, hard to root out.

Knowledge is power.   Secrecy also is power.  A government agency with unlimited authority and virtually unlimited funding to gather information on individuals and groups, and to do so under total secrecy, has more power than anyone should be entrusted with.


The first congressman to battle the NSA is dead; No-one noticed, no-one cares by Mark Ames of PandoDaily.   Hat tip to naked capitalism.

The Lost Legacy of Otis Pike by ex-CIA analyst Melvin Goodman for Consortium News.

Top Secret America: a secret world, growing beyond control by Dana Priest and William Arkin for the Washington Post.

The NSA ‘Probably’ Collects Data on Congress’s Phone Calls by Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic.

In 1972, the CIA Director Relabeled “Dissidents” as “Terrorists” on Washington’s Blog.  [added 2/8/14]

Journalism and the CIA: the Mighty Wurlitzer by Daniel Brandt in 1997.  [added 2/8/14]

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One Response to “NSA scandals and leaks: Deja vu all over again?”

  1. Daniel Brandt Says:

    There is more information on the interplay between the U.S. secret state, the media, and Congress during the 1970s in the essay “Journalism and the CIA: The Mighty Wurlitzer”, which I wrote in 1997. See http://www.namebase.org/news17.html


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