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In the 1970s, Congress investigated intelligence abuses. Time to do it again? (washingtonpost.com)
283 points by Libertatea 1572 days ago | hide | past | web | 63 comments | favorite



Yes, and can I have a pony?

The problem is that, in spite of his happy talk, Obama has always been as bad as Bush on the first and fourth amendments, arguably worse. Remember, he voted for telecom immunity in 2008, when he was a senator.

From the article: "In the wake of Watergate, Democrats won large majorities in both houses of Congress in the midterm elections of 1974. One of the first items on the new Congress’ agenda was to investigate the intelligence abuses of Richard Nixon and his predecessors."

From another article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/11/obama-leaves-door-o...): "Responding to the most popular inquiry on the "Open for Questions" feature of his website, Barack Obama said on Sunday that he is "evaluating" whether or not to investigate potential crimes of the Bush administration, but that he was inclined to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards."

And even if Obama weren't so awful in this regard, Congress is not capable of doing anything with real teeth.


> Congress is not capable of doing anything with real teeth.

Congress has the power, and is legally capable. They just don't want to, for some fucking reason.

Someone explain to me why the Republicans don't get all up in arms about this mess? They could easily blame it on Obama's administration to win support for the next election. Even though they voted for the PATRIOT act, they can at least put on an act of hating that one part where everyone gets spied on. It's really not hard to put a spin on it where you can gain a ton of public support.

Instead, the ONLY people we see who are angry about the whole situation are the "fringe/crazy" ones: Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Ron Paul, etc... which, interestingly enough, lowers the credibility of outrage.

Meanwhile, everyone else in Congress and mainstream media proclaims Snowden a traitor.

I've never been one for conspiracies (seriously, never in my life), but I'm finding it more and more difficult to shake the feeling that there's something going on with our government and media that we're all completely unaware of. Their actions make absolutely no logical sense from an individual self-interest perspective.


> Someone explain to me why the Republicans don't get all up in arms about this mess?

Because they are the people (in some cases literally, in other cases by unbroken chain of ideological succession) that have been arguing about the inherent power of the executive and that FISA and related restrictions on that power are both unwise and unconstitutional since about 30 seconds after the furor over the Nixon abuses that led to FISA died down (some of them didn't wait that long.)

And probably because those of them that aren't on the fringes have more direct and likely documented (even if those documents are classified, for the moment) connections to the surveillance that has gone on under the last two administrations than just that political advocacy for a principal which supports surveillance.

> They could easily blame it on Obama's administration to win support for the next election.

Not if they were fully informed and fully supportive of it the whole way through the previous administration and there is documentary evidence to prove it. Kind of risky to try to make political hay out of a public demand to get to the bottom of an outrage if you know that any significant investigation is going to result in a paper trail some of whose tendrils point back to you.


Someone explain to me why the Republicans don't get all up in arms about this mess? They could easily blame it on Obama's administration to win support for the next election.

They get more traction among their base for blaming him for Benghazi, and the IRS scandal, and Obamacare.


The reason is that there's no one giving them money to protect our freedoms. There's a line of parties with billions of reasons (annually) to maintain the status quo, and they pay full-time lobbyists to protect their interests.


> They could easily blame it on Obama's administration to win support for the next election.

It's June 2013. It's not time for those games to start up properly yet.


Welcome to the fringe.

And please don't lump Paul in with Palin, Beck, et al.


The difference between now and 1970 is clear: NSA surveillance doesn't affect the lives of the average american. Spying or not spying, the lives of most people are the same as they have been. The NSA has been doing what its doing for years, and most people have suffered no ill effect. We can't expect Congress to be up in arms about philosophical privacy issues.

In the 70s on the other hand, Watergate was a really really big deal. It did have an effect on the daily lives of most americans. A US President had never resigned in disgrace before, and it was very much on peoples' minds. Congress was fulfilling it's role to help the nation heal in a time of crisis.

The problem with this NSA story is that there hasn't been anything to make it "real" in the minds of the average citizen. If people thought that Obama was using surveillance to keep tabs on and punish his political enemies, people would be up in arms. If the government was kicking down doors and arresting people for thought crimes, Republicans in Congress would be out of their minds with rage. Given the current political situation, it would only take evidence of one abuse to make most americans rise up in protest. But we haven't seen that yet.

This is why I think that Snowden overplayed his hand. Evidence of surveillance is shocking, but it's not enough to incite people to action. If he could have provided proof of just one actual abuse due to government surveillance, he would have made the impact that he wanted and so much more. As it is, I'm afraid that he might have thrown his lifestyle away for nothing.


I've said this before, but privacy activists need to get in bed with the hardcore conservatives on this one. Surveillance could be used to impose more aggressive policing of taxes, it could be used to track gun purchases and use, it could be used to track anti-abortionists, it could be used to spy on religious groups, etc. Is the NSA spying on state and local governments? Could surveillance be used to get a "47%" type soundbite to torpedo a future conservative candidate?

Couching this debate in national security terms is a losing proposition, because conservatives tend to want to defer to the federal government in national security situations, and liberals are just ecstatic to finally have a President who isn't seen as "weak." And hanging out with the libertarians is pointless, because they do not and never will have any voting power in the U.S. But there is tremendous potential here for an appeal to the frothy Tea-party base of conservatives because there is a lot about NSA surveillance that is contrary to their interests, or at least they would understand so if the message were cast in their language.


And another thing is that if Snowden had been studiously careful not to overstate the situation, or allow Greenwald to overstate the situation, there would probably be a lot more uproar by the semi-interested citizenry.

PRISM was advertised as being a $20 million backdoor into people's email and social media that would allow any ol' NSA analyst who felt bored to literally watch peoples' thoughts form in their minds.

It turned out to be a $20 million program to automate an existing manual process, with at least some measure of oversight controls (including non-governmental oversight).

Google, Facebook, and other companies were forced by Snowden's or Greenwald's lie to push back hard. WaPo revised their claim slightly to adjust, which caused the media to focus on the claim being 'walked back'.

Clearing up that issue, in the process muddied up the whole issue, and at the same time Snowden's credibility was taking shots about his salary, releasing hacking details to China, etc.

Snowden has done a lot right from the P.R. aspect but by damaging his credibility right from the get-go, he's allowed it to turn into the geopolitical equivalent of a he-said/she-said... which is not something most people have the gumption to care to try to resolve on their own. Especially in politics, where we essentially expect all sides to lie anyways.

Another thing that probably didn't help was all the involvement from Russia, Hong Kong, and China, but especially WikiLeaks and Ecuador (who are only one step up from Venezuela nowadays). It is very hard to try to line yourself up as a concerned American citizen when you're sitting in a Russian airport, being coached by Assange, and trying to flee to 'Chavez's little brother'. To the extent that any change must necessarily be driven by the will of the people, that whole thing was a mistake.


Snowden's credibility is irrelevant. The credibility of the documents he revealed is the only thing that matters. Those documents are credible because the US government has treated them as classified, implicitly admitting that they are accurate. If snowden was proven to be the greatest liar in the history of humanity it would make those documents no less credible.

Also, any association with china, russia or ecuador is irrelevant. Again, it's about what the US government is doing, and those countries have no bearing on those actions. Sure, they probably do the exact same spying on their own citizens, but even that is only tangentially relevant.


> The credibility of the documents he revealed is the only thing that matters.

That's essentially my point WRT Snowden. The very documents he leaked were inconsistent with his story. Now everything else that was leaked the government can claim that the people are missing the context of, and about a million other debate/propaganda techniques that come into play when you are able to show that the messenger himself has biased their reporting.

> Also, any association with china, russia or ecuador is irrelevant.

It's not irrelevant, and I explained why already. The impetus for change will have to come from the people. By fleeing and making it Assange vs. the U.S. (again) Snowden has made it that much less likely that the American people will see the situation in terms of an assault on them personally, and more likely that they will see it as an assault on America by unpopular foreign governments.

What you are saying would be true if it didn't matter what the people thought, but public opinion actually counts for a lot, even in America.


The thing about hardcore conservatives is that they're perfectly happy to use all that security state apparatus against people they don't like, such Muslims, people who work in abortion clinics and so on. I've run into a surprising number of people who advocate militarizing the border with Mexico on the grounds that 'it worked for East Germany.' Realistically, most of those people were untroubled by the Patriot Act etc. until Obama took office, so I don't think they're reliable allies.

I do think a Congressional review is in order, but my prediction is that nothing much will happen until the US is fully out of Afghanistan in 2014. At that point the AUMF may be rescinded, which would also make it a good time to review the Patriot act. With the mid-terms coming up the GOP might try a campaign based on liberty as you describe, especially since their base is likely to be pissed off about immigration reform, not having a victory celebration for leaving Afghanistan etc.


As opposed to taking a chance at preventing that abuse? Perhaps not as dramatic, but on the whole better to curtail it before. Once the level is abuse, it's much harder to correct.

I do see what you're saying, though. The surveillance could just get more subtle, the secrecy of it better to prevent future leaks, so that the lying about could continue. And then the chance of abuse is still there.

Who knows, maybe there are already cases of abuse, such as the Barrett Brown story. Maybe there are are others waiting to come out, or it will be easier to get them out after this first revelation.


That's a good point. If Snowden had, for example, released proof that Obama defeated Romney with the help of the NSA snooping, the Republicans probably would have sacked the White House by now.


Also the US was trying to figure out if it was going to help South Vietnam.


No. The congress/president are so scared of having another terrorist attach on their watch that they are 100% sold on letting the NSA/FBI/CIA/NYPD do anything they want to do in the name of safety/security.

This stems from the fact that the average American demands that they be safe and anyone that "drops the ball" will bear their wrath next election cycle. The average American values an illusion of safety/security FAR HIGHER than their privacy.


To me this seems like the root of the issue. Politicians give the voters what the want; If most are willing to trade civil liberties for security (or at least the illusion of security) than that's the way it will be :(


>The congress/president are so scared of having another terrorist attach

This is an excuse. I'm more inclined to think it is the fantastical amounts of money they get to play with, spoils for their districts and such.


Those two explanations are not mutually exclusive. It's probably both, to varying extents, in many different members.


Simply not true; Busk dropped the ball, 9/11 happened, and he was re-elected.


This Congress?

If they do anything, it will be to enact legislation to make what's going on appear more legal, in a chorus of harumphs.


Exactly. The last time there was an open debate (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_Awareness_Office) about mass surveillance, Congress realized it was a bad issue with the public. So what did they do? Government simply moved these programs into black budgets or granted retro-active immunity, or modified the FISA rules to make sure everything fit into a legal framework that is Congress Approved. They wrote the laws and fund the programs. They want these programs. Why would they care to have a public debate about them?


And self-congratulations, don't forget those!

"Congress has shown once again a remarkable willingness to reach across party lines to ensure that no problem is ever reported again. Time for a raise!"

I believe that government can work well for us, it's just the individuals in there now in both major parties are by-and-large the worst sorts we could hope for real oversight.


Oversight of secret programs by elected officials flat doesn't work, in a system where money plays such a big role. The only ones who can speak on the issue (with dollars) are those who know about it, and the only ones who know about it are those asking for the power or the contract.


I've seen it work in real life, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree.


You've "seen" oversight by elected officials reliably protect against abuses in a secret program? What was your role?


Citizen only. I would cite Sens. Wyden and Udall as reliably working within the system to expose the abuses in a strategic manner, knowing how powerful the forces arrayed against them are.

Now certainly you can disagree with me and say that they should have exposed everything they knew about the programs to the public, but I think their work over the years has been more productive that that. Had they gone public, they probably would have been replaced by other individuals all too interested in quid pro quo.


My point is slightly different - Wyden and Udall have been great in public, on this issue. My point is we have no way of telling whether their walk matches their talk behind closed doors. Hopefully it does, but I am not confident we can count on it.

You've not observed it, you've observed what you think and hope is it - it may be, but it's not evidence until we know.


Is it possible for my belief in congress to reach negative numbers?


How do you feel about your representatives in particular?


I don't.


The difference is that the president and congress are in on it, they approved these measures and had been briefed (at least supposedly to some extent).

Also, based on what I currently know from watching and reading about the current situation, there is suppose to be SOME form of checks and balances between the FBI, NSA, CIA, some members Congress, judicial committees set up, and the president. What is that committee going to find? That a large portion of the government was doing something wrong, I doubt it.


So did the people of the US though. There haven't been intelligence abuses because this is all legal to do, and the laws are publicly available knowledge if anyone would care to look.

If the issue is people think some of these things should be illegal, then the challenge is to get the appropriate legislation changed. But if you're only champions are people who think foreign intelligence should be shutdown altogether (as Snowden has been moving his message towards), you're not going to get very far (because it's an obviously stupid idea).


That's clearly not what Snowden has been saying or implying. The information he released about Chinese spying and hacking was about what he considered abuses, e.g. spying and hacking civilian infrastructure in China rather than targeting state actors.


Snowden has been saying in other realms that foreign citizens should have as much privacy as U.S. citizens do, which essentially defeats the purpose of having the NSA at all given how intertwined "national security-related" communications are with the rest of our comms.

The other way you can go is to degrade the level of protection from this type of data collection an American gets to match what NSA can do for foreigners (since having so much as one foreign party to a conversation makes the whole thing fair game for NSA). But I don't think that would be politically feasible, and it's not as if that would really make those who live outside the USA feel any better about the idea of their data being collected.


if they can spy on the rest of the world they will spy on you too,sooner or later.


Indeed, just like if they can wiretap a mafia boss's phone calls they could tap mine, sooner or later.


I regret never getting around to obtaining enough karma to be able to down vote that post. That is a completely false analogy. It's more along the lines of: "Indeed, just like if they can wiretap my son's girlfriend, because her father was from Sweden, then they could tap mine, sooner or later"


Well, that's just it.

Once you assume malice on the part of the government you must assume they can wiretap you for any reason at all.

What many here are saying is that is the reason for which we must not even have this capability at all.

But why then do we allow other law enforcement tools that could also be misused (even horribly misused)? David Simon had an interesting theory about why the tech community is so up in arms about this one.


No, what the NSA is doing is illegal and unconstitutional: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/28/opinion/the-criminal-nsa.h...

That's why they keep their tortured legal pseudo-justification secret, because if it ever came to a public court, Federal judges would stop them collecting call records on millions of Americans for long periods of time. Read the link and discover why SCOTUS has said that long term surveillance violates the 4th Ammendment.


Back then, it was easy to form a coalition because the guilty party (and his party) was clear, so the other party could make political hay by pursuing an investigation.

In this case, both (major) parties have a lot of blood on their hands. There's no meaningful coalition in Congress that stands to win from such an investigation.


Great interview.

The last poll I saw on this was that over 75% want a committee to investigate, and roughly the same percentage cross party lines. "A new Church committee" is one of the demands from StopWatching.us and from EFF et. al.'s open letter to Congress.


Doesn't the Church Committee still exist? It's the Select Committee on Intelligence:

[Senate, ex Church] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Senate_Select_Co...

[House, ex Pike] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_House_Permanent_...

The current chair is Dianne Feinstein, who apparently supports everything the NSA is doing.


In the current political climate I think the best chance to stop it would be for the Supreme Court to rule on the merits. That would require the courts to allow the lawsuits to proceed, which might happen now thanks to Snowden.

If not, then the next best chance would be some Nixon-level scandal over partisan spying abuses that spurs congress into action. Though that could take decades before it happens.


The chairman of that committee, Frank Church, warned about the NSA in 1975:

> "That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide."

> "I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge... I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."

> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Church#Warning_about_the_...


It doesn't seem like anyone outside of HN considers these abuses. If anything Congress will investigate how to stop all these leaks, not the programs being leaked.


You know you're screwed when you start hoping Congress will save you.


I'm all for it. But hopefully the Congress people that will be part of the investigation team won't be the same people that butt-kissed the intelligence chiefs at the past 2 hearings.

Put Wyden and Udall in charge, or even better - some people from EFF/ACLU.


Wyden and Udall are already on the Senate committee that oversees the NSA.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Senate_Select_Co...

They have been for years, if anyone's been paying attention.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/16/us/politics/democratic-sen...


Yes, but the reason that they would be good candidates to lead the hearings is that they've been trying to warn us about surveillance abuses for a while. They didn't wait until it was politically advantageous (read: after the Snowden leak) to do so.

Source: the second link in your comment.


I'd be contempt with just EFF being one of the 3rd parties to observe and cover in detail congressional investigation of the issue, in some official account of transparency.

That's also more realistic goal.


I think you mean "content"; "contempt" has almost an opposite meaning.


Thank you.


I'd actually be quite happy if there was a permanent oversight committee containing members of either or both of the EFF/ACLU, with the exception that they're not allowed to leak programs, but are allowed to call for an independent Special Prosecutor to investigate abuses at any time. In fact I think the government could do a better job in general with liaising with non-profit NGOs.


I dislike the idea of "private contractors" having access to my data, much less government secrets. These private spies provide a layer of insulation between their actions and the checks & balances which are supposed to protect us from civil rights abuses by the government.

I'm not sure how many "private contractors" the NSA had in the 1970's but I'm sure that the recent revelations would not have gone without public outcry in the 70's, and just as the use of mercenaries in wartime was once frowned upon in the USA, so would the news of "mercenary-spies" operating outside the direct oversight of the US government be frowned upon.


The most surprising thing about this article was that Idaho actually elected a democrat to the Senate once upon a time.


The parties have moved all over the map over the last 100 years.


His committee examined the actions of the FBI, CIA, NSA and other agencies between World War II and the 1970s.

Let's hope that it doesn't take another 30 years for these issues to be resolved. Though given the attitudes of the people on these committees, I don't give that good odds.


In the 70s Nixon was impeached for spying on the democrats, will Obama get impeached for spying on all americans?


This is not the same Congress anymore


We absolutely need this, but for this to happen you are going to need one of the leaders of either the senate or house to buy-in. Not likely without kicking the current yahoos out. Remember, it's mostly these same guys who put us here in the first place.


It was only a temporary fix last time, would be an even more temporary fix this time.




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