No Comment — June 18, 2009, 1:33 pm

Operation Pinwale

Candidates Obama and Biden were quick to castigate the Bush Administration’s love for warrantless surveillance of American citizens in the alleged interests of national security. In fact, they were quick to use the label that actually applies to this conduct: “illegal.” But in office, their attitudes seem curiously transformed. Eric Holder, at an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, turned semantic summersaults to avoid calling the intrusive practices unlawful. And his Justice Department seems to have adopted a curiously lax attitude towards enforcement of the law limiting government surveillance. In fact, their conduct seems remarkably similar to that of the Bush team.

These facts were highlighted yesterday in a strong article by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times.

Since April, when it was disclosed that intercepts of some private communications of Americans went beyond legal limits in late 2008 and early 2009, several Congressional committees have been investigating. Those inquiries have led to concerns in Congress about the agency’s ability to collect and read domestic e-mail messages of Americans on a widespread basis, officials said. Supporting that conclusion is the account of a former N.S.A. analyst who, in a series of interviews, described being trained in 2005 for a program in which the agency routinely examined large volumes of Americans’ e-mail messages without court warrants. Two intelligence officials confirmed that the program was still in operation….

He said he and other analysts were trained to use a secret database, code-named Pinwale, in 2005 that archived foreign and domestic e-mail messages. He said Pinwale allowed N.S.A. analysts to read large volumes of e-mail messages to and from Americans as long as they fell within certain limits — no more than 30 percent of any database search, he recalled being told — and Americans were not explicitly singled out in the searches. The former analyst added that his instructors had warned against committing any abuses, telling his class that another analyst had been investigated because he had improperly accessed the personal e-mail of former President Bill Clinton. Other intelligence officials confirmed the existence of the Pinwale e-mail database, but declined to provide further details.

The NSA insists that this is all innocent error. That excuse is getting very tired and increasingly unbelievable. At this point the abuses are so wide sweeping and so systematic that it’s hard not to conclude that they have official approval if not encouragement. We wouldn’t have these problems if we had effective Congressional oversight. For eight years that has been lacking. On the Senate side, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has promised that her committee will start taking its mandate seriously. But when confronted with the Risen-Lichtblau story yesterday, Feinstein insisted that as far as she knew, the NSA was not violating the rules on e-mail surveillance. Feinstein’s idea of oversight appears to rest on accepting the claims of senior NSA functionaries. But that is the same negligent-to-complicit approach to oversight taken by her predecessor, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kans.).

This points to another problem. If the NSA is engaged in the sort of conduct that Risen and Lichtblau describe, and it’s doing this in conformity with law, then something’s terribly wrong with the law. Every time it was caught engaged in illegalities, the NSA demanded that the law be changed to legalize its invasions of the privacy of American citizens. It consistently got 90% of what it asked for, and continued to act as if it had gotten everything. The Times editorializes on this problem as well:

The 2008 expansion of FISA is a deeply flawed law. Congress needs to repeal it and re-examine, carefully this time, what powers the government really needs to eavesdrop on Americans and what limits and safeguards need to be placed on those powers.

The 2008 FISA bill went too far, and it’s now high time to start restoring civil liberties. It’s also time to insist that Congress begin at long last to provide meaningful oversight.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2015

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Last month, the PEN America Center announced its intention to honor Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award at a gala on May 5. Six members of the organization have withdrawn from the gala in protest. In "The Joke," Justin E. H. Smith addressed the Anglo-American left's response to the killings.
Photo of a Charlie Hebdo editorial meeting in 2006 by Jean-Francois/DEROUBAIX
Article
In Search of a Stolen Fiddle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“To lose an instrument is to lose an essential piece of one’s identity. It brings its own solitary form of grief.”
Violin © Serge Picard/Agence VU
Post
Driving the San Joaquin Valley·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Don sucked the last of his drink through his straw and licked his lips. 'The coast, to me, is more interesting than the valley.'”
Photograph by the author
Article
Othello’s Son·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper's Magazine and a good friend. "Othello's Son," which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue.
Photograph © Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS
Article
Beyond the Broken Window·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“By the time Bratton left the department, in 2009, Los Angeles had quietly become the most spied-on city in America.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery

Minimum number of cows whose skins are used each year for Major League baseballs:

45,000

Sleeping deer and grazing cows generally align their bodies along the earth’s north–south magnetic axis.

A study found that the goods whose costs are most frequently searched online in South Africa are cows, and, in the United States, where a two-headed cow was born, the most common items are patents.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today