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:

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

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2014

Stop Hillary!

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How the Islamic State was Won

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cage Wars

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Everyday Grace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"What Hillary will deliver, then, is more of the same. And that shouldn’t surprise us."
Photograph by Joe Raedle
Article
Cage Wars·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"In the 1970s, “Chickens’ Lib” was a handful of women in flower-print dresses holding signs, but in the past decade farm hens have become almost a national preoccupation."
Photograph by Adam Dickerson/Big Dutchman USA, courtesy Vande Bunte Farms
Article
Paradise Lost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Suffering Sappho! Here we still are, marching right into yet another century with our glass ceilings, unequal pay, unresolved work and child-care balance, and still marrying, forever marrying, men."
Illustration by Anthony Lister
Article
Off the Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Nearly half the reservation lives below the poverty line, with unemployment as high as 60 percent, little to no infrastructure, few entitlements, a safety net that never was, no industry to speak of, and a housing crisis that has been dire not for five years but since the reservation’s founding in 1855."
Illustration by Stan Fellows
Post
Introducing the November 2014 Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Doug Henwood on stopping Hillary Clinton, fighters and potential recruits discuss the rise of the Islamic State, the inevitability of factory farming, and more

Cover photo by Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Average number of days an oiled seabird survives in the wild after cleaning and release:

6

Epilepsy drugs can extend the life of worms by 50 percent.

A deaf dog belonging to a deaf owner was shot and killed in Alabama, and an Indiana dog’s skin troubles were found to be caused by an allergy to humans. “It’s just not his fault,” said the owner of Lucky Dog Retreat.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today