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History repeats itself in today’s outcry over NSA’s reach

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Soon after, the NSA’s pendulum swung the other way as a new phrase entered Americans’ lexicon: warrantless wiretapping.

At a glance

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.

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Oversight of oversight » After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush issued an executive order allowing the NSA to snoop, without FISA approval, on anything it believed related to terrorism as long as one person in the conversation wasn’t a U.S. citizen. Even then, some news reports charged the NSA was snapping up wholly domestic communications.

The New York Times reported in 2005 that the NSA mistakenly grabbed calls between persons inside the United States thinking they were foreign.

After public scrutiny, Bush retooled the program, and Congress relaxed some of the FISA laws so wiretapping had to go through the court. The outcry eventually dissipated.

Enter Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who earlier this month revealed to The Guardian newspaper a secret court order that allows the NSA to nab domestic phone records. Again, agency officials were called to Capitol Hill to testify, and intelligence committee heads were quick to justify the need for the domestic surveillance, which they stress doesn’t include the content of phone calls or emails.

The secret agency’s snooping, once again, had dragged it into the public spotlight.

Aid, the unofficial NSA historian, said the intelligence community always will push for more access, arguing it will keep Americans safer. But with more authority comes more secrets and more secret problems.

"You can’t get a little pregnant," Aid said.

Beyond that, as the NSA’s timeline shows, history repeats itself.

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"It’s not a learning organization," Aid said. "It keeps coming back and making its mistakes over again."

Built-in protection » The NSA points to broad oversight and built-in checks that keep it within bounds.

NSA’s Compliance Director John DeLong noted that beyond the multiple overseers who check on NSA’s operations, officials encourage all employees to report anything out of whack. And he noted that just as the agency certifies its employees to understand the boundaries of its authority, those boundaries also are loaded into the software workers use — a new development in the past few years. Type an errant command into the system and a red flag pops up; try to circumvent the law and an automatic spot check is supposed to catch it.

"There’s never a perfect system," DeLong said. "We have to not only rely on that self-reporting, but we have to set up systems such that we detect it."

Inglis, the deputy director, added problems arise when the technology shifts and the checks and balances haven’t caught up. But he added, it’s usually the NSA that zeroes in on problems and reports them.

"Nobody consults with us when a terrorist wants to do something different," he said.

Computer checks built in to the software to prevent errant snooping are updated frequently, always in consultation with the Justice Department and FISA, NSA officials stressed.

Former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who ran a CIA cover during the Nixon administration, noted that wiretaps, directional microphones and surveillance cameras helped decimate the mafia. The same methods can be used to catch terrorists given adequate controls, which he said the NSA has.

"The oversight is there, and I believe the classified nature of FISA’s ruling and other court activities is legitimate because of the fact that we are at war," Bennett said, referring to the war on terrorism.

Intelligence officials at all levels are patriotic, Bennett added, and will push back on any perceived overreach.

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.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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