The Issue: The motto never was 'In government we trust'

By MARCELLA S. KREITER, United Press International  |  Jan. 19, 2014 at 4:30 AM
share with facebook
share with twitter
| License Photo

Whether Americans ever truly trusted their government is an open question but things began going rapidly downhill in the 1960s and 1970s amid the upheavals of the civil rights era, Vietnam and Watergate.

"I'm from the government and I'm here to help you," became a punch line. Watergate decimated public faith in the presidency and the percentage of Americans participating in elections declined.

The national paranoia briefly united Americans behind their government after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington, but government actions since have sorely tested citizen trust.

The feeling terrorists were around the corner waiting to pounce has given way to the feeling Big Brother really is watching -- from traffic cameras to catch red-light runners and speeders, to the National Security Agency's data collection programs.

Has the NSA dragnet helped avert terror attacks? No one has been willing to offer any specifics.

President Barack Obama Friday ordered an end to the NSA bulk collection of data and called for development of a mechanism to preserve "the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata to try to assuage outrage against the agency's operations."

"We cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies," Obama said. "There is a reason why BlackBerries and iPhones are not allowed in the White House Situation Room. We know that the intelligence services of other countries -- including some who feign surprise over the Snowden disclosures -- are constantly probing our government and private sector networks, and accelerating programs to listen to our conversations, intercept our emails, or compromise our systems."

At the same time, Obama said from now on, if he wants to know what another head of state is thinking, he will pick up the phone and call, not rely on intelligence.

Obama said intelligence activities have prevented "multiple attacks" both at home and abroad.

He said the "danger of government overreach" becomes more likely as technical abilities improve.

However, "nothing that I have learned ... indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law. ... They're not abusing authorities to listen to your phone calls or read your emails."

"We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyberthreats without some capability to penetrate digital communications -- whether it's to unravel a terrorist plot, to intercept malware that targets a stock exchange, to make sure air traffic control systems are not compromised or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts."

But, he added: "Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us. We won't abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached."

Obama ticked off four reforms:

-- a new presidential directive setting out parameters for intelligence collection,

-- greater transparency for surveillance activities, including declassifying Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions,

-- additional protections regarding interception of communications by foreign targets overseas, and

-- periodic review of National Security Letters used by the FBI to investigate threats.

"The bottom line is that people around the world -- regardless of their nationality -- should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security," Obama said.

"Now let me be clear: Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments -- as opposed to ordinary citizens -- around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does. We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective."

In a policy directive issued in advance of the speech, the administration mounted a defense of intelligence activities but at the same time said "legitimate" privacy and civil rights concerns both in the United States and allied countries must be recognized.

"The United States shall not collect signals intelligence [SIGINT in the jargon] for the purpose of suppressing or burdening criticism or dissent, or for disadvantaging persons based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or religion," the memo reads.

"Signals intelligence shall be collected exclusively where there is a foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose to support national and departmental missions and not for any other purpose."

The directive rules out use of industrial espionage for competitive advantage, but permits it "to protect the national security of the United States or its partners and allies," and calls for regular review to make sure what is being collected is necessary.

The memo calls for developing software that would enable intelligence agencies to collect targeted data rather than sweep up everything and overhaul the way information is shared.

Obama's actions may not be enough to satisfy critics.

"I didn't hear any lessening of spying on the Americans or collecting records of Americans," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said after the speech on CNN. "I heard, 'Trust me. I'm going to put some more safeguards in place.'"

Paul said the U.S. Supreme Court is going to have to determine whether one warrant really can justify the data collection. He likened the NSA warrants to what the British did prior to the Revolutionary War when general warrants allowed them to enter any colonist's house.

"We don't need all this extra collection of information," he said.

"The many areas requiring rollback illustrate just how far things have gone," a group of intelligence insiders wrote in an open memorandum to the president this month on, which describes itself as the first investigative news magazine on the Internet. "Real change would start with a confession to the voters by the NSA and the intelligence committees."

William Binney, former technical director of World Geopolitical and Military Analysis and co-founder of the SIGINT Automation Research Center, and NSA veterans Thomas Drake, former defense intelligence senior executive service, Edward Loomis, former chief of the SIGINT Automation Research Center, and J. Kirk Wiebe, former senior analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, said the NSA should get ahead of secrets leaker Edward Snowden and the reporters to whom he has released his documents and reveal the "true extent of data collection," identify the agencies that use the NSA database and declassify its budget.

Binney, Loomis and Wiebe developed THINTHREAD, a data collection method designed to unite data from disparate sources on terrorists and criminals, the memo said. The program was developed by NSA in house for $3 million and was replaced by a much more expensive contractor-developed system that never worked after THINTHREAD's developers said they needed only $330 million of an offered $1.2 billion to upgrade equipment and capabilities.

The writers say the sad truth is current NSA activities are not necessary to prevent another Sept. 11 attack.

"The sadder reality, Mr. President, is that NSA itself had enough information to prevent 9/11, but chose to sit on it rather than share it with the FBI or CIA. We know; we were there. We were witness to the many bureaucratic indignities that made NSA at least as culpable for pre-9/11 failures as are other U.S. intelligence agencies," they said.

The writers charge the NSA data collection process is ineffective.

"How else does one explain missing the bombers of Boston, Times Square, and the underwear bomber over Detroit?" they asked, adding later, "That NSA's bulk collection is more hindrance than help in preventing terrorist attacks should be clear by now despite the false claims and dissembling."

They concluded: "We are in a position to know that collecting everything makes very little sense from a technical point of view. And, as citizens, we are offended by the callous disregard of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution we all swore a solemn oath to support and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

In a separate post on the site last week, Wiebe said collecting metadata reveals much more than the actual content of conversations.

"Analysts can determine a great deal about a person -- any person -- by following the electronic crumbs that people inevitably leave behind in the course of their daily routines," he wrote. "And this data-byte-crunching analysis is much less time-consuming than monitoring each phone call or reading each email."

The Washington Post reported in 2010 the NSA collects 1.7 billion pieces of data every 24 hours.

"It does not make it easier to find a needle in a haystack if you continue to add hay," Coleen Rowley, the former Minneapolis FBI agent who disclosed the agency's failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, wrote for CNN when Snowden's revelations first began to surface. "No one has ever explained why it was left to fellow passengers or alert street vendors, not the 'intelligence' agencies, to stop the last four major terrorist attacks or attempted attacks on U.S. soil."

Rowley noted it's not the first time the U.S. government has trampled on civil rights.

"One need to only look to the operation of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s and '50s to recall a time when rights were suspended and to be accused meant to be convicted of a thought crime," Rowley wrote.

"J. Edgar Hoover gathered secret information on anyone and everyone of consequence. ...

"Hoover's 'black bag jobs' against such public activists as Martin Luther King Jr., secret blackmailing attempts and non-judicial 'disruption' of these groups is what actually led to the Church Committee investigation of abuses and the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which the NSA has now effectively dismantled.

"Who wants to go back to the good ole' HUAC-Hoover era?"

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories