Washington » In a deal with major communications companies, the National Security Agency scooped up millions of international and domestic communications. It created a watch list of anti-war activists, civil-liberty advocates and political opponents. In at least three cases, the agency spied on Americans.
"We would be derelict in our duties if we were to exempt NSA from public accountability," a senator declared as public outrage grew and Congress called for hearings. "The committee ... cannot sweep improper activities under the rug — at least not if we are to remain true to our oath to uphold the Constitution."
History of secrets
1919 » U.S. government creates the Cipher Bureau, also known as Black Chamber, during World War I
1930 » Signal Intelligence Service is formed
1949 » Armed Forces Security Agency is created
1952 » President Dwight Eisenhower creates National Security Agency
1962 » NSA plays “critical role” during Cuban Missile Crisis
1970s » NSA’s existence officially acknowledged
1975 » The Church Committee issues reports of NSA’s domestic surveillance
1978 » Congress creates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court
2001 » President George Bush authorizes NSA to conduct domestic, warrantless spying
2001 » Congress passes PATRIOT Act
2005 » The New York Times discloses warrantless wiretapping
2011 » Congress re-authorizes PATRIOT Act, and President Barack Obama signs it
2013 » The Guardian reveals a secret court order allowing the NSA to collect Verizon “telephony data”
2013 » Congress conducts hearings on the NSA’s surveillance programs
Source » National Security Agency
The National Security Agency in Utah
Today begins a three-part examination of the NSA in Utah. Stories to come include:
Saturday » A look at how and why Bluffdale emerged as the NSA’s top choice among 38 candidates for a new data center, plus details about the linguistics center the spy agency already operates in Utah.
Sunday » Newly leaked documents, prior revelations, building specifics, information from defense contractors and hints dropped by NSA’s top brass paint a clearer picture of just what may go on at the Utah Data Center.
The year was 1975 and remarks were made by then-Idaho Sen. Frank Church, who headed a special committee to investigate overreaches by U.S. intelligence operations.
But the scenario also is eerily reminiscent of recent disclosures that show the nation’s top intelligence-gathering agency continues to collect data on Americans’ domestic phone calls and tap into major Internet services such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo.
U.S. officials — from the White House to Congress and the NSA itself — stress vast differences between the 1970s and now, including checks and balances in all three federal branches and even built-in computer warning systems to curb abuses.
"We have rich oversight," NSA’s deputy director, John Inglis, told The Salt Lake Tribune, noting supervision by multiple inspectors general, officials in the departments of justice and defense, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), the heads of the congressional intelligence committees and in-house reporting requirements.
"There are a fair number of eyes on what we do such that there’s someone — probably multiple someones — who would call us out if we’re in the wrong place," Inglis added.
While most of what the NSA does is classified, Americans have learned recently the powerful reach of its operations, spawning renewed calls to rein in its secret operations.
It’s a position the NSA — and its predecessors — have faced since modern intelligence efforts launched after World War I, and one that hits Utah close to home now that the secret agency is building the massive Utah Data Center set to go online this fall.
The dawn of the secret court » The NSA dates to 1919, when the government created the Cipher Bureau, also known as the Black Chamber, to break the codes of diplomatic cables from foreign nations. Ten years later, it closed.
"Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail," then-Secretary of State Henry Stimpson famously remarked.
A new shop, the Signal Intelligence Service, launched soon afterward but wasn’t officially acknowledged. For a time, there was no concerted, government-wide service to prepare intelligence.
"Going into World War II we were not even close to being confident and capable or able to perform anything close to a global intelligence mission, which is what America needed," said Matthew Aid, author of The Secret Sentry, a history of the NSA.
After the war, President Harry Truman established the NSA but it took another 20 years before the government officially acknowledged its existence as the agency strayed into domestic surveillance.
It was before Church’s committee that the NSA, the CIA and other executive branch authorities faced up to questionable intelligence-gathering techniques, such as listening in on calls involving peace groups and black-power organizations. Those hearings forced a wholesale change in how foreign and domestic information was acquired.
An exasperated Congress created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and for the next 23 years, the NSA kept its focus foreign.
When Gen. Michael Hayden took over the agency in the late 1990s, he headed to Capitol Hill to testify that the NSA wouldn’t spy on U.S. citizens without a specific reason authorized by the FISA court.
"The American people must be confident that the power they have entrusted to us is not being, and will not be, abused," Hayden said.
NSA’s strict concentration and closely guarded findings actually hurt America’s efforts to combat terrorism, according to the 9-11 Commission, which cited NSA’s lack of intelligence gathering within the U.S. as one of the many missed opportunities.
"An almost obsessive protection of sources and methods by the NSA, and its focus on foreign intelligence, and its avoidance of anything domestic would, as will be seen, be important elements in the story of 9-11," the commission wrote.
Soon after, the NSA’s pendulum swung the other way as a new phrase entered Americans’ lexicon: warrantless wiretapping.
—Next Page >
Join us for a Trib Talk discussion
Tuesday at 11:30 a.m., Trib Talk’s Jennifer Napier-Pearce will moderate a live video chat at sltrib.com with reporter Tony Semerad, the Brookings Institution’s Alan Friedman and others about the NSA’s Utah Data Center. You can join the discussion using a TribTalk hashtag on Twitter or Google+.
Tune in to C-SPAN
The Tribune’s Thomas Burr will talk about the NSA’s Utah Data Center Tuesday at 7:15 a.m. on C-SPAN.
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