Decades before 9/11, and the subsequent Bush order that directed the NSA to eavesdrop on every phone call, e-mail message, and who-knows-what-else going into or out of the United States, U.S. citizens included, they did the same thing with telegrams. It was called Project Shamrock, and anyone who thinks this is new legal and technological terrain should read up on that program.
Project SHAMROCK…was an espionage exercise that involved the accumulation of all telegraphic data entering into or exiting from the United States. The Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) and its successor NSA were given direct access to daily microfilm copies of all incoming, outgoing, and transiting telegraphs via the Western Union and its associates RCA and ITT. Operation Shamrock lasted well into the 1960s when computerized operations (HARVEST) made it possible to search for keywords rather than read through all communications.
Project SHAMROCK became so successful that in 1966 the NSA and CIA set up a front company in lower Manhattan (where the offices of the telegraph companies were located) under the codename LPMEDLEY. At the height of Project SHAMROCK, 150,000 messages a month were printed and analyzed by NSA agents. In May 1975 however, congressional critics began to investigate and expose the program. As a result, NSA director Lew Allen terminated it. The testimony of both the representatives from the cable companies and of director Allen at the hearings prompted Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Frank Church to conclude that Project SHAMROCK was “probably the largest government interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken.”
Among the reforms to come out of the Church Committee investigation was the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which for the first time outlined what NSA was and was not permitted to do. The new statute outlawed wholesale, warrantless acquisition of raw telegrams such as had been provided under Shamrock. It also outlawed the arbitrary compilation of watch list containing the names of Americans. Under FISA, a secret federal court was set up, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In order for NSA to target an American citizen or a permanent resident alien—a “green card” holder—within the United States, a secret warrant must be obtained from the court. To get the warrant, NSA officials must show that the person they wish to target is either an agent of a foreign power or involved in espionage or terrorism.
A lot of people are trying to say that it’s a different world today, and that eavesdropping on a massive scale is not covered under the FISA statute, because it just wasn’t possible or anticipated back then. That’s a lie. Project Shamrock began in the 1950s, and ran for about twenty years. It too had a massive program to eavesdrop on all international telegram communications, including communications to and from American citizens. It too was to counter a terrorist threat inside the United States. It too was secret, and illegal. It is exactly, by name, the sort of program that the FISA process was supposed to get under control.
Twenty years ago, Senator Frank Church warned of the dangers of letting the NSA get involved in domestic intelligence gathering. He said that the “potential to violate the privacy of Americans is unmatched by any other intelligence agency.” If the resources of the NSA were ever used domestically, “no American would have any privacy left…. There would be no place to hide…. 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 an abyss from which there is no return.”
Bush’s eavesdropping program was explicitly anticipated in 1978, and made illegal by FISA. There might not have been fax machines, or e-mail, or the Internet, but the NSA did the exact same thing with telegrams.
We can decide as a society that we need to revisit FISA. We can debate the relative merits of police-state surveillance tactics and counterterrorism. We can discuss the prohibitions against spying on American citizens without a warrant, crossing over that abyss that Church warned us about twenty years ago. But the president can’t simply decide that the law doesn’t apply to him.
This issue is not about terrorism. It’s not about intelligence gathering. It’s about the executive branch of the United States ignoring a law, passed by the legislative branch and signed by President Jimmy Carter: a law that directs the judicial branch to monitor eavesdropping on Americans in national security investigations.
It’s not the spying, it’s the illegality.