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Our Long National Nightmare Continues

Roughly speaking, there have been four great showdowns over abuse of executive power in modern U.S. history. The earliest has to do with domestic surveillance by the CIA, and other ill-conceived schemes, as revealed by the 1975 Church Committee hearings. The second, closely overlapping the first, involved all the excesses of the Nixon administration, including Watergate itself, the "Plumbers," the secret bombing of Cambodia, Kissinger"s wiretapping of staffers, etc. The third, the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan Administration, seems quaint compared to the fourth, the Bush administration"s NSA domestic surveillance program, and the broader assertion of executive authority to torture and otherwise ignore international law.

These  episodes have certain themes in common. Yes, one of them is that they were all hatched in the first term of Republican presidencies and revealed only after reelection, but that’s not the answer I’m looking for. (Also, many of the CIA abuses preceded Nixon, which is why I separate them from Watergate.)

First, all of them produced a backlash. The Church Committee revelations, which Garance Franke-Ruta and Ruth Marcus both recently disinterred, are remembered now mostly by CIA veterans as the beginning of a period in which, in their view, our intelligence capabilities were crippled. The War Powers Resolution and  the Budget Act of 1974, both of which Vice President Cheney criticized in a recent interview in which he described his view of executive power, were all residue of the backlash against Nixon. The lesson seems clear: In a constititutional system, those who want executive power to be protected and respected, should be especially wary of presidents who take it too far.

Second, all of them involved creating a zone of extreme secrecy in which decisions, and even the processes leading to those decisions, were kept secret not just from Congress and the Courts, but within the executive branch itself. The defense of the warantless eavesdropping that seems to be emerging on the right is that it was not the FISA court they were trying to evade, since that was no obstacle, but the process within the executive branch of generating a request and getting it to the FISA court. Dana Priest’s recent story in the Post reports that even the legal reasoning behind the NSA program was kept secret from the executive branch lawyers who are supposed to handle these things and are capable of handling classified information. Nixon’s operations similarly operated in secret from the FBI and CIA. In Iran-Contra, Oliver North said the Reagan administration sought to create, "an off the shelf, self financing, independent covert operations capability."

Third, in these zones of extreme secrecy, in which nothing ever has to be justified to anyone outside of the closed circle, all sorts of insanity flourishes. Personal obsessions take hold and are pursued unchecked. Ideas that would be too embarassing to explain to anyone seem to make sense and are carried out. This was true in every example, from the nutball Castro assassination schemes hatched in the CIA to the idea of firebombing the Brookings Institution in the Nixon White House, to the bizarre excesses of Iran-Contra, such as delivering a cake shaped like a key and a Bible signed by Reagan to the Iranian clerics. All of Iran-Contra is really an example of this process, as the White House’s obsession with evading congressional restrictions on aid to the Nicaraguan contras led them into a far more consequential entanglement in Middle Eastern politics that never would have made sense on its own. 

Given what we know about these previous episodes in which the executive branch created zones of extreme secrecy, I think it’s quite likely that we will soon learn that the NSA domestic surveillance program involved much more than just tracking people who received calls from known al Qaeda suspects, something that I certainly wouldn’t object to. I don’t know what it will be -- some have speculated that it involved monitoring journalists -- but whatever it is, it was something that couldn’t be justified even within the administration.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 2, 2006 | Permalink


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This has become my hobby horse, but forgive me. Note the seeming recurrence of anti-imperial leaks coming from crew asked to spy on the homeland: Recently NSA to the Times and previously Mark "CoIntelPro" Felt to Woodward & Bernstein's WaPo.

Posted by: MT | Jan 2, 2006 7:11:21 PM

Here's what I think the rest of the story is. I think that the NSA wiretapping scheme is really the beginning of infrastructure, technical and organizational, that allows the government to use computers to listen to every phone call and read every email in the country and the vast majority of the world.

I note that it has been reported that the US has been actively pressing the large communication companies to route traffic through large switching computers located in the US. Computers that have been instrumented to feed the government's need for wiretaps.

I also note that many people have highlighted the various clues in administration statements that the special nature of the NSA technology is the reason that the laughably lax FISA warrants weren't used.

My inference is that the NSA is doing something to the effect of using computers to listen to broad streams of phone calls, starting with al Qaeda phone numbers but resulting in the listening to vast numbers by considering everyone called by each downstream phone a target. Using speech recognition, they are searching for anything interesting. The reason they don't use FISA warrants is that they have no idea who they are listening to until the computer detects something suspicious.

Presently, I am sure that the capability is fairly limited. Speech recognition is still a fairly primitive art and computers, as fast as they are these days, are not really up to the task of listening to everyone. That's why Bush et al can cheerfully tell us that they this is a limited function that is only targeting terrorists.

In a few years, as computer capability and sophistication continue, we can expect that these systems, safely hidden by the multiple layers of executive branch obstinacy, will be used for other activities.

That is, the thing that can't even be justified within the administration is that the ultimate goal of the NSA wiretapping program is to use computers to monitor the nearly all of the communications of American citizens with the goal of controlling their behavior.

Only for terrorists though. Really, I promise. You don't have to worry at all. Just go back to sleep now.

Posted by: TQ White II | Jan 3, 2006 12:23:07 AM

Unlike Nixon, Dubya will likely emerge from all of this totally unscathed, regardless of how unethical, illegal, and immoral his conduct was revealed to be. The NASCAR rednecks, Evangelical Protestant wackos, and the wealthy elites of this country will stand behind Bush no matter what the man says or does.

Posted by: John Birch | Jan 5, 2006 12:02:18 PM

Thank you for your research and article. I had not known/forgotten some of this information.

One of the ideas that keeps floating through my mind is that this none of these men were punished and it keeps happening.

What if illegal actions were punished, legally, swiftly and harshly, like banishment from public office?
Wonder if things would keep on happening. That is why I feel stongly that we need to take a stand here, srw a line in the sand and impesch bush and cheney.

Posted by: Diane | Jan 5, 2006 12:08:28 PM


This is a wonderful summary and analysis. Thank-you.

One reservation, or perhaps a question.

I'm not all that clear that the CIA's post-Church committee response was so universally negative. The same is true, I think, of the post-Hoover FBI.

Would you not agree that many, many in the intelligence and security community increasingly understood, from the late seventies on, that those executive reaches for power were not really in the interests of those who genuinely wanted to spend their lives working to secure American interests at home and abroad? (Or, for that matter, the post-Miranda decision police departments; they still mutter, but I don't think the great majority of American police organizations want to go back to the bad old days of rubber hose-induced confessions)

Remember, Daniel Elsberg was himself a bonefide CIA officer, a true believer in our presence in VietNam, until he went there, on assignment, and decided otherwise, a man who had served, voluntarily and proudly as an officer in the US Navy. And, let us also remember that what the Pentagon Papers revealed was a CIA analysis of the possiblities in VietNam that was essentially the same as the war critics' analysis of those possiblities. A comparison of what was in those "Papers," and John Kerry's testimony to congress as a leader of the VietNam Veterans Against The War shows them to be close to identical, a fact that continues to escapes the notice of all would-be Swift Boaters Clueless AboutThe Nature of Truth."

From Reagon on, what we have had, primarily, it's true, under Republicans, is a conflict between the CIA and those Republican presidencies, who, dissatisfied with the analysis of the regular CIA, have looked elsewhere (rightward)among intelligence figures outside the CIA for their intelligence analysis - I'm thinking here of the "Team B" analysis of the threat level of the Soviet Union, during the first years of the Reagan administration, which was decidedly more alarmist than the regular CIA's assessment; we know now that the CIA was right, Reagan et al, wrong; the Soviet Union had not become stronger through-out the sixties and seventies, it had become weaker, and, as we know now, was less than a decade away from dissolving under its own internal, and external contradictions. (yes Reagan deserves credit for finally recognizing Gorbechav was for real, against the advice of those same voices he had listened to at the beginning of his first term, but in many ways, we are still paying today, in economic and social terms, for that combination of tax cuts for the wealthiest amd an insanely expensive unpaid for military buildup he sold to the country...well, you know all this better than I, having been a member of the Clinton administration.

Sorry for the length of this comment...final point. At bottom, the rightwing hysteria about Joe Wilson, and the concerted attempts on the part of the so-called "good" conservatives, The Weekly Standard gang, David Brooks, and their willingness to continue to slime Wilson as a liar, was their desire to believe that Valerie Plame was an exemplar of a "rogue" CIA which had labored to take down Bush's presidency, presumably by insisting on presenting it with intelligence that was true, but not what Bush et al wanted to hear.

Finally, since we're at the beginning of the a new year, good time to thank-you, as a devoted reader, for the absolutely essential analysis you offer here and at TPM cafe. Have a wonderful new year.

Posted by: Leah A | Jan 5, 2006 12:53:25 PM

This is a great article. I am new to your blog and i like what I see. I look forward to your future work.

Posted by: Aaron Spealing | Nov 17, 2006 7:56:37 AM