Back in 1978, the nation was enjoying a summer listening to Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy and getting down with A Taste of Honey’s Boogie Oogie Oogie. Vietnam and Watergate were over and President Carter was presiding over a sluggish economy and trying to push through intelliigence reforms.
The reforms were inspired not only by the revelations of Watergate but by the revelations of the Church Committee. Frank Church was a liberal Senator from Idaho (imagine!) who held extensive hearings throughout 1975 and 1976. At the time, Dick Cheney was Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff, and Donald Rumsfeld (who was also Chief of Staff for a while) was the Defense Secretary.
The Church Committee had an entire report dedicated to the National Security Agency. It was called Volume 5: The National Security Agency and Fourth Amendment Rights. Does this all sound relevant to today? I wish every American would sit down and read the documents from that report.
But to make things simple, I will provide some shortcuts.
The Prepared Statement of Attorney General Edward H. Levi.
And here are the opening statements of the Chairman Church and Ranking Member John Tower of Texas.
The CHAIRMAN. The hearing will please come to order.
This morning, the committee begins public hearings on the National Security Agency or, as it is more commonly known, the NSA. Actually, the Agency name is unknown to most Americans, either by its acronym or its full name. In contrast to the CIA, one has to search far and wide to find someone who has ever heard of the NSA. This is peculiar, because the National Security Agency is an immense installation. In its task of collecting intelligence by intercepting foreign communications, the NSA employs thousands of people and operates with an enormous budget. Its expansive computer facilities comprise some of the most complex and sophisticated electronic machinery in the world.
Just as the NSA is one of the largest and least known of the intelligence agencies, it is also the most reticent. While it sweeps in messages from around the world, it gives out precious little information about itself. Even the legal basis for the activities of NSA is different from other intelligence agencies. No statute establishes the NSA or defines the permissible scope of its responsibilities. Rather, Executive directives make up the sole “charter” for the Agency. Furthermore. these directives fail to define precisely what constitutes the “technical and intelligence information” which the NSA is authorized to collect. Since its establishment in 1952 as a part of the Defense Department, representatives of the NSA have never appeared before the Senate in a public hearing. Today we will bring the Agency from behind closed doors.
The committee has elected to hold public hearings on the NSA only after the most careful consideration. For 23 years this agency has provided the President and the other intelligence services with communications intelligence vital to decision-making within our Government
councils. The value of its work to our national security has been and will continue to be inestimable. We are determined not to impair the excellent contributions made by the NSA to the defense of our country. To make sure this committee does not interfere with ongoing intelligence activities, we have had to !be exceedingly careful, for the techniques of the NSA are of the most sensitive and fragile character. We have prepared ourselves exhaustively; we have circumscribed the area of inquiry to include only those which represent abuses of power; and ave have planned the format for today’s hearing with great care, so as not to venture beyond our stated objectives.
The delicate character of communications intelligence has convinced Congress in the past not to hold public hearings on NSA. While this committee shares the concern of earlier investigative committees, we occupy a different position than our predecessors. We are tasked, by Senate Resolution 21, to investigate “illegal, improper, or unethical activities” engaged in by intelligence agencies, and to decide on the “need for specific legislative authority to govern operations of * * * the National Security Agency.” Never before has a committee of Congress been better prepared, instructed, and authorized to make an informed and judicious decision as to what in the affairs of NSA should remain classified and what may be examined in a public forum.
Our staff has conducted an intensive 5-month investigation of NSA, and has been provided access to required Agency files and personnel. NSA has been cooperative with the committee, and a relationship of mutual trust has been developed. Committee members have received several briefings in executive session on the activities of the Agency, including a week of testimony from the most knowledgeable individuals, in an effort to determine what might be made public without damaging its effectiveness. Among others, we have met with the Directors of the NSA and the CIA, as well as the Secretary of Defense. Finally, once the decision was made to hold public hearings on then NSA, the committee worked diligently with the Agency to draw legitimate boundaries for the public discussion that would preserve the technical secrets of NSA, and also allow a thorough airing of Agency practices affecting American citizens.
In short, the committee has proceeded cautiously. We are keenly aware of the sensitivity of the NSA, and wish to maintain its important role in our defense system. Still, we recognize our responsibility to the American people to conduct a thorough and objective investigation of each of the intelligence services. We would be derelict in our duties if we were to exempt NSA from public accountability. The committee must act with the highest sense of responsibility during its inquiry into the intelligence services. But it cannot sweep improper activities under the rug — at least not if we are to remain true to our oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the land.
We have a particular obligation to examine the NSA, in light of its tremendous potential for abuse. It has the capacity to monitor the private communications of American citizens without the use of a “bug” or “tap.” The interception of international communications signals sent through the air is the job of NSA; and, thanks to modern technological developments, it does its job very well. The danger lies in the ability of the NSA to turn its awesome technology against domestic communications. Indeed, as our hearing into the Huston plan demonstrated,
a previous administration and a former NSA Director favored using this potential against certain U.S. citizens for domestic intelligence purposes. While the Huston plan was never fully put into effect, our investigation has revealed that the NSA had in fact been intentionally monitoring the overseas communications of certain U.S. citizens long before the Huston plan was proposed-and continued to do so after it was revoked. This incident illustrates how the NSA could be turned inward and used against our own people. It has been the difficult task of the committee to find a way through the tangled webs of classification and the claims of national security — however valid they may be — to inform the American public of deficiencies in their intelligence services. It is not, of course, a task without risks. but it is the course we have set for ourselves. The discussions which will be held this morning are efforts to identify publicly certain activities undertaken by the NSA which are of questionable propriety and dubious legality.
General Allen, Director of the NSA, will provide for us today the background on these activities, and he will be questioned on their origins and objectives by the committee members. Like the CIA and the IRS, the NSA, too, had a “watch list” containing the names of U.S. citizens. This list will be of particular interest to us this morning, though we will take up another important subject as well. The dominant concern of this committee is the intrusion by the Federal Government into the inalienable rights guaranteed Americans by the Constitution. In previous hearings, ave have seen how these rights have been violated by the intelligence services of the CIA, the FBI, and the IRS. As the present hearings will reveal, the NSA has not escaped the temptation to have its operations expanded into provinces protected by the law.
While the committee has found the work of the NSA on the whole to be of a high caliber and properly restrained and has tremendous respect for the professional caliber of the people who work there, the topics we shall explore today do illustrate excesses and suggest areas where legislative action is desirable. That is why we are here.
Senator Tower would like to make an opening statement.
John Tower’s opening statement:
Senator TOWER. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Chairman, I shall be brief. From the very beginning, I have opposed the concept of public hearings on the activities of the NSA. That opposition continues, and I should like to briefly focus on the reasons I believe these open hearings represent a serious departure from our heretofore responsible and restrained course in the process of our investigation.
To begin with, this complex and sophisticated electronic capability is the most fragile weapon in our arsenal; and unfortunately, I cannot elaborate on that, because that would not be proper. Public inquiry on NSA, I believe, serves no legitimate legislative purpose, while exposing this vital element of our intelligence capability to unnecessary risk, a risk acknowledged in the chairman’s own opening statement.
S. Res. 21 does authorize the NSA inquiry, and this has been done very thoroughly in closed session. But that same resolution also picks up a recurring theme of the floor debate upon the establishment of this committee. Specifically, we were admonished not to disclose outside
the committee information which would adversely affect intelligence activities. In my view, the public pursuit of this matter does adversely affect our intelligence-gathering capability.
Even if the risks were minimal — and I do not believe they are minimal — the NSA is the wrong target. The real quarry is not largely mechanical response of military organizations to orders. The real issues of who told them to take actions now alleged to be questionable should be addressed to the policy level. It is more important to know why names were placed on a watch list than to know what the NSA did after being ordered to do so.
In summary, Mr. Chairman, I believe we have fallen prey to our own fascination with the technological advances of the computer age. We have invited a three-star military officer to come before us to explain the awesome technology and the potential abuses of a huge vacuum cleaner. We have done this despite the fact that our exhaustive investigation has established only two major abuses in 23 years, both of which have been terminated: And despite the obvious risks of this sensitive component of the Nation’s intelligence-gathering capacity, I am opposed to a procedure which creates an unnecessary risk of irreparable injury to the public’s right to be secure: even if offered under the umbrella of the acknowledged presumption of a citizen’s right to know.
In taking such risks we both fail to advance the general legislative purpose and, I believe, transgress the clearly expressed concerns of the Senate requiring us to, if we err at all, err on the side of caution. It is my view that there comes a point when the people’s right to know must of necessity be subordinated to the people’s right to be secure, to the extent that a sophisticated and effective intelligence-gathering capability makes them secure.
I do not think that any of us here, for example, would want us to sacrifice our capability for verification of Soviet strategic weapons capability. And whether or not that capability was thought posture in a first-strike configuration, I cite it only as an example. Hence, my opposition to the conduct of these public hearings.
I am aware, Mr. Chairman, that through the democratic process, the committee has, by a majority vote, voted to go this route. But I felt a compulsion to state my own reasons for being in opposition.
The CHAIRMAN. Senator Tower, I appreciate your statement, and I might say that there are two levels of concern in the committee, and relating to the two different practices that are of questionable legality. And so, we have divided this hearing into two parts, proceeding with the portion that has least objection from members of the committee who feel as Senator Tower does. And then we will have an opportunity to discuss further the second part. after General Allen has left the witness stand. And that is the procedure, that is satisfactory with you?
Senator TOWER. I accept the procedure, and it is totally satisfactory to me.
The CHAIRMAN. Very well.
In 1978, these abuses were finally addressed in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). It is ironic that Cheney and Rumsfeld are again a part of a government under investigation for illegally spying on Americans. But, given John Tower’s attitude back in 1975, it is not surprising that these people have no respect for the FISA reforms.
Back when the Church hearings on the NSA began, the American people had never heard of the top secret agency.
This morning, the committee begins public hearings on the National Security Agency or, as it is more commonly known, the NSA. Actually, the Agency name is unknown to most Americans, either by its acronym or its full name.
But on June 26th, 1978, the U.S. News and World Report did a big expose on the NSA. Here are some tidbits from that article:
Two events, 5,000 miles apart, are calling attention to the worldwide operations of America’s most important but one of it’s east known espionage organizations.
In Moscow at the end of May, American agents discovered a secret shaft with Russian electronic devices in the U.S. Embassy. The Soviets insisted that they planted the devices as a defense against embassy’s sophisticated electronic eavesdropping operation, presumably run by the National Security Agency.
In Zaire in mid-May, Katangese rebels staged an invasion from neighboring Angola. President Carter maintains that he has conclusive evidence of Cuban involvement. The evidence includes messages intercepted by the National Security Agency.
What is this agency, and how does it operate? How has it managed to emerge unscathed – in fact, almost unmentioned – while the other U.S. intelligence arms were being pummeled by congressional investigations or the press over the past two years?
Actually, NSA, with its extraordinary skill at electronic snooping, is rated as Washington’s single most important source of intelligence, an importance that has been increased substantially by the recent sharp cutback in secret operations of the Central Intelligence Agency.
With listening posts around the world, in space, air and on land and sea, NSA not only monitors the communications of other governments but gathers and analyzes the radar transmissions of potentially hostile ships, planes and land stations. It tries to crack the codes of other nations and also devises the codes that protect American secrets.
Information gathered by NSA has warned Presidents of impending war, prevented a major terrorist attack in this country and headed off at least one assassination attempt.
Secret shafts in the America’s Moscow Embassy? Kinda makes me nostalgic for the Cold War.
By almost any standard of measurement, NSA is a huge agency. With more than 1.3 billion dollars a year to spend on its day-to-day operations, substantially more than the CIA gets, it soaks up almost a third of the nation’s intelligence budget. Nearly 20,000 persons work in its nine-story headquarters at Fort Meade. Md., and thousands more man remote listening posts, funneling in information from ships, planes and land bases around the world. According to those who have visited NSA headquarters, it is, once you are past the fences and armed guards, much like any other federal office building, more modern than the Pentagon but not quite as attractive as the CIA headquarters.
NSA has been described as a giant electronic vacuum cleaner, scooping up all sorts of radio and wire communications, pouring them into the computers at Fort Meade, 15 miles north of Washington and spewing out the world’s secrets for the use of the President, other top government officials and military commanders in the field.
Sources of information for NSA range from simple little wiretap or electronic bugging devices to multimillion-dollar satellites that monitor the telementary signals sent out during other countries’ missile tests. Airplanes, ships and submarines constantly listen in others’ communications and record their radar signals. Technicians in ground stations collect the same type of information.
With this kind of worldwide intelligence-gathering network, largely shrouded in secrecy, questions have been raised as to whether the agency is spying on Americans as well as foreigners Congressional investigators learned, in fact, that NSA had obtained and distributed information about Americans in two operations. In one, code-named Shamrock, NSA received copies of overseas telegrams handled by three telegraph companies over period of nearly 30 years. In the other, code-named Minaret, NSA used lists of names supplied by other government agencies to screen international messages for information about Americans.
These documents abuses by NSA plus the secrecy with which it surrounds itself have helped to feed suspicions about other questionable activities it may be conducting. One of the most persistent rumors is that the agency routinely eavesdrop on telephone calls within this country.
The rumor is largely false. But there is just enough basis in fact to lend it credibility.
The deja vu is astounding. Here is a list of the NSA’s known accomplishments in 1978.
A few NSA success stories have leaked out:
In the mid-1950s, the CIA tunneled under the border dividing West from East Berlin and tapped into three underground communications cables carrying 158 circuits. For months, NSA listened in on the line going from the Soviet military headquarters in East Germany to Moscow.
NSA got wind of a major terrorist attack and tipped off the FBI in time to prevent the operation.
An attempt on the life of a prominent American in a foreign country was thwarted because of information intercepted by the agency.
Just before the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, NSA came up with hard information that an attack by the Arabs was with hard information than an attack by the Arabs was imminent, but the information was discounted because such an attack did not make military sense.
The agency reportedly learned the Soviet bargaining position in the first strategic-arms-limitation talks, giving American negotiators an enviable advantage.
For years, NSA eavesdropped on the conversations of Premier Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders as they chatted with each other and with the Kremlin over the radiotelephones in their cars.
Keep all of this in mind (both the good and the bad) while we watch these hearings. One thing is for sure: Cheney and Rumsfeld never wanted FISA passed in the first place. It should surprise no one that they chose not to abide by the law.