People are shocked by the scope of secret state spying on their private communications, especially in light of documentary evidence leaked to media outlets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
While the public is rightly angered by the illegal, unconstitutional nature of NSA programs which seize and store data for retrospective harvesting by intelligence and law enforcement officials, including the content of phone calls, emails, geolocational information, bank records, credit card purchases, travel itineraries, even medical records–in secret, and with little in the way of effective oversight–the historical context of how, and why, this vast spying apparatus came to be is often given short shrift.
Revelations about NSA spying didn’t begin June 5, 2013 however, the day when The Guardian published a top secret FISA Court Order to Verizon, ordering the firm turn over the telephone records on millions of its customers “on an ongoing daily basis.”
Before PRISM there was ECHELON: the top secret surveillance program whose all-encompassing “dictionaries” (high-speed computers powered by complex algorithms) ingest and sort key words and text scooped-up by a global network of satellites, from undersea cables and land-based microwave towers.
Past as Prologue
Confronted by a dizzying array of code-named programs, the casual observer will assume the spymasters running these intrusive operations are all-knowing mandarins with their fingers on the pulse of global events.
Yet, if disastrous US policies from Afghanistan and Iraq to the ongoing capitalist economic meltdown tell us anything, it is that the American superpower, in President Nixon’s immortal words, really is “a pitiful, helpless giant.”
In fact, the same programs used to surveil the population at large have also been turned inward by the National Security State against itself and targets military and political elites who long thought themselves immune from such close attention.
Coupled with Snowden’s disclosures, those of former NSA officer Russell Tice (first reported here and here), revealed that the agency–far in excess of the dirt collected by FBI spymaster J. Edgar Hoover in his “secret and confidential” black files–has compiled dossiers on their alleged controllers, for political leverage and probably for blackmail purposes to boot.
While Tice’s allegations certainly raised eyebrows and posed fundamental questions about who is really in charge of American policy–elected officials or unaccountable securocrats with deep ties to private security corporations–despite being deep-sixed by US media, they confirm previous reporting about the agency.
When investigative journalist Duncan Campbell first blew the lid off NSA’s ECHELON program, his 1988 piece for New Statesman revealed that a whistleblower, Margaret Newsham, a software designer employed by Lockheed at the giant agency listening post at Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire, England, stepped forward and told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in closed session, that NSA was using its formidable intercept capabilities “to locate the telephone or other messages of target individuals.”
Campbell’s reporting was followed in 1996 by New Zealand investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s groundbreaking book, Secret Power, the first detailed account of NSA’s global surveillance system. A summary of Hager’s findings can be found in the 1997 piece that appeared in CovertAction Quarterly.
As Campbell was preparing that 1988 article, a report in the…………