No laws define the limits of NSA's power - David Burnham, 1983
Burnham raised this issue in 1983 following the case of Government surveillance over of Abdeen Jabara, a Michigan-born lawyer who for many years worked with Arab-American citizens and alien residents.
A Federal Court of Appeals ruled that the largest intelligence agency of the United States, the National Security Agency, basically intercepted his overseas communications, as those of other Americans, even if the latter were not suspected in any unlawful activity.
In the course of the hearing the United States Court of Appeals did acknowledge the far-reaching nature of the case and the fact that the NSA's interception of overseas telecommunications and passing the data onto "other Federal agencies has great potential for abuse." In the end, however, the Court preferred not to mess with it and left the case to "the domain of the executive or legislative branch of our Government."
The NSA collects and analyzes information for the President, for the CIA, and the Defense Department. It has always been in the unique position, since it has always been equipped with the latest technologies for spying and processing data, "computers to break codes, direct spy satellites, intercept electronic messages, recognize target words in spoken communications and store, organize and index all of it."
As the years went by, the agency never stopped trying to enlarge expand both its functions and powers without any monitoring, consulting, or supervision from the Congress.
Over the decades, since the NSA was created per the classified executive order of President Truman in 1952, no authority has displayed any visible interest in fighting or at least in reducing the unlimited powers the NSA seemed to have got out of nowhere, nor was anyone willing to manage conflicts arising from the NSA’s excess of jurisdiction.
In a country where the Constitution demands that an open Government operates on the condition of total fairness, the NSA was the agency with virtually no supervision. This issue was once addressed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, as it asked the Congress to look into the problem. Still nothing was done.
The NSA’a budget exceeds that of the CIA and the FBI, and has no law to define its rights as well as obligations. As a result, NSA is at liberty to define its own goals, also, the highly technical nature of the agency is also an obstacle for closer examination.
The NSA has always been very careful as to who it exposes itself to. The first open discussion which took place in 1975 dwelled on several issues of the agency’s activities but what’s more important, it outlines major goals, which, according to Burnham, were 'one offensive, one defensive. First, the agency aggressively monitors international communications links searching for "foreign intelligence," intercepting electronic messages as well as signals generated by radar or missile launchings. Second, the agency prevents foreign penetration of communications links carrying information bearing on "national security."
One of the most extensive examination of the agency by the independent source was performed right after the Watergate process, followed by disclosures of other abuses by Federal intelligence agencies. In the course of the investigation Senator Frank Church, not only constantly reiterated how the agency benefited the national security, but didn’t hesitate to point out that the same surveillance equipment might be just as good to watch Americans, as it was to watch Russians. "No American would have any privacy left. ... There would be no place to hide," Church concluded.
Over the years the NSA’a scope of interests significantly broadened as they started to gather information basically about everyone who would express a view at least a little bit straying from the mainstream.
The agency’s initiation in this kind of "preventive surveillance" or "surveillance over friends who can become enemies", as Lenin used to say, was when it monitored all telephone calls between the United States and Cuba. Gradually the list of potential "American enemies" also started to include those who spoke against the Vietnam War.
According to the subsequent investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, a total of 1,200 Americans were watched by the N.S.A. between 1967 and 1973 because of their political activities. Luckily, the Senate caught them in the act early enough to halt this program in May 1975. The second illegal surveillance the Senate intelligence committee discovered was examining most of the telegrams entering or leaving the country between 1945 and 1975. The program was halted in May 1975, the moment the committee took interest in it.
All in all, between 1952 and 1974 the NSA gathered information on about 75,000 Americans, some definitely presenting a threat to the nation’s security, but the majority just expressing their anti-war views.
As a result, the Senate intelligence committee issued a report which questioned both the N.S.A.'s activities and the inability of Congress and the Federal courts to deal with them. "The watch-list activities and the sophisticated capabilities that they highlight present some of the most crucial privacy issues now facing this nation," the committee warned.
"No laws define the limits of the N.S.A.'s power. No Congressional committee subjects the agency's budget to a systematic, informed and skeptical review. With unknown billions of Federal dollars, the agency purchases the most sophisticated communications and computer equipment in the world. But truly to comprehend the growing reach of this formidable organization, it is necessary to recall once again how the computers that power the N.S.A. are also gradually changing lives of Americans," – Burnham says his prophetic words in conclusion, and, given the history of the NSA, the current conflict is very far from being over.