The eavesdropping-on-Americans scandal came as shock and betrayal to most employees of the National Security Agency and to other intelligence officers, active and retired.
The idea that the once highly respected former director of NSA, Gen. Mike Hayden, had allowed himself to be seduced into sinning against NSA’s first commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Spy on Americans," was initially met with incredulity. Sadly, no other conclusion became possible as we watched Hayden and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spin and squirm before the press on December 19 in their transparent attempt to square a circle.
For many of us veteran intelligence officers, the press conference put a damper on the Christmas spirit. The Gonzales-Hayden pas de deux should trouble other Americans as well, because the malleable Gen. Hayden, now bedecked with a fourth star, is Deputy Director of National Intelligence the second highest official in the US intelligence community. Only time will tell what other extralegal activities he will condone.
The framers of the US Constitution must have been turning in their graves on December 19 as they watched Gonzales and Hayden defend the eavesdropping especially as the two grappled with the $64 million question: Instead of simply flouting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), why didn’t the administration ask Congress to change it, if the law really needed to be made less restrictive? (And that remains a big "if.")
Well-briefed by executive branch lawyers, Gonzales recited "our legal analysis our position" that Congress’s authorization of force in the wake of 9/11 gave the president the right to disregard FISA’s prohibition, absent a court order, against using NSA to eavesdrop on Americans. This "position," of course, is quite a stretch; even the regime-friendly Washington Post has termed it "impossible to believe" the government’s contention. While reading from his script, the Attorney General presented his case as well as it could be argued, but twice he slipped while answering a question as to why the administration decided to disregard the FISA law rather than try to amend it.
Letting the Cat out of the Bag
Asked why the administration had decided to take a "backdoor approach," Gonzales twice let the cat out of the bag:
"We have had discussions with Congress as to whether or not FISA could be amended to allow us to adequately deal with this kind of threat, and we were advised that that would be difficult, if not impossible."
They went ahead and did it anyway.
Gen. Hayden’s remarks were equally intriguing, as he repeatedly emphasized the need for "speed and agility." Describing the current eavesdropping effort as a "more aggressive program than would be traditionally available under FISA," he seemed equally at pains to stress that the program deals only with international calls for short periods of time. He is saying, in other words, that US citizens are monitored only sometimes and just a little, so we’re dealing with only tiny incompatibilities with the FISA law and, anyhow, the president has said he has the authority anyway. New York Times reporter James Risen, who broke the story on NSA eavesdropping on Americans, says the communications of "roughly 500 people in the US have been intercepted every day over the past three or four years," which hardly jibes with the impression that Hayden seems to be trying to foster.
As for speed and flexibility, Hayden knows, better than virtually anyone else, that both are already built into the FISA law, which allows the government to begin eavesdropping immediately, as long as it sends catch-up paperwork to the FISA court within 72 hours. His acquiescence in administration instructions to make an end-run around FISA is a serious blow to the morale of those thousands who once worked for Hayden and had admired him as director of NSA, as well as to thousands of other intelligence officers, past and present, hoping against hope for more integrity at senior levels.
Appearing Tuesday on Democracy Now!, former NSA officer Russell Tice talked about NSA’s ethos regarding eavesdropping on US citizens:
"A SIGINT [signals intelligence] officer [is] taught from very early on in their careers that you just do not do this. This is probably the number one commandment you do not spy on Americans. It is drilled into our head over and over again in security briefings at least twice a year, where you ultimately have to sign a paper that says you have gotten the briefing. Everyone at NSA, who’s a SIGINT officer knows that you do not do this Apparently the leaders of NSA have decided that they were just going to go against the tenets of something that’s gospel to a SIGINT officer Hayden knew that this was illegal."
Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski (ret.) was assigned to NSA headquarters in the late nineties while working for Gen. Hayden, who was then head of the Air Force Intelligence Agency. At that time she like others had a favorable impression of Hayden and was therefore stunned upon learning of his acquiescence in, and rationalization of, eavesdropping on Americans. In a recent conversation, Karen used as an analogy what Gen. Brent Scowcroft said recently about Dick Cheney, with whom he had worked for many years "I don’t know Dick Cheney." As for her, said Karen, "I don’t know Gen. Hayden."
Cancer Metastasizes at the Top
It does not seem so very long ago that John Dean saw fit to warn President Richard Nixon that there was a "cancer on the presidency." Now prevalent among top Bush administration officials is a two-fold malady. One GAGA (Go-Along-to-Get-Along) has been around a long time. The other might be called "Colin Cancer," after former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell.
At Christmas, the still unrepentant Powell came out of limbo, just before the Vatican closed it down. Once again he was feted in the indiscriminate mainstream media, which has decided to forgive and forget his unconscionable role in spreading a trumped-up justification for what he well knew was an unprovoked war (not to mention the media’s complicity in that same deceit). Powell’s claims that he had no information that there were doubts regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are demonstrable lies.
Has he forgotten the strong doubt expressed by chief UN inspector Hans Blix and his people on the ground in Iraq, who enjoyed virtually unfettered access in the months immediately before the US/UK attack on March 19, 2003, and who pleaded in vain to be allowed to continue their search for WMD? Does he not remember that his own intelligence analysts at State had warned him time and time again of the bogus "intelligence" reports being manufactured at the Pentagon and the aiming-to-please analysis being served up at CIA? (Much of this is documented in the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee of July 2004.) Heck of a job, Colin!
And is it not curious that Powell "forgot" to take his own intelligence analysts along with him to CIA headquarters for those (in)famous four days and nights of preparation for his shameful performance at the UN on February 5, 2003, and that he neglected to heed his analysts’ warnings about the falsehoods and hyperbole they had seen in early drafts of that speech?
Sorry, but I find it impossible to feel sorry for Colin Powell as he laments the fact that his UN speech left a "blot" on his record. What about the blot it put on the reputation of the United States? What about the 2,200 US servicemen and women who have died in Iraq not to mention the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed because he, and those like him, lacked to guts to shake off the GAGA syndrome and try to halt the march of folly? Powell was one of the very few who might have stopped it.
True to character, Powell continues to march in lockstep with the president, telling ABC last week that he saw "nothing wrong with the president authorizing" warrant-less eavesdropping, which, Powell added, "should continue." As for the missing weapons of mass destruction, Powell insisted to George Stephanopoulos: "Some of the intelligence was right. There’s no question that Saddam Hussein had the intention of having such weapons." It is a very old, tiresome chestnut; but George just smiled sweetly, not willing to challenge the matinee idol.
Suffice it to say that Powell’s chutzpah and the continued lionization of him in the media give very poor example for younger generals, most of whom lack antibodies for GAGA which, in turn, makes them all the more susceptible to Colin cancer. What the Haydens of this world need is positive example, but Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has assembled a coterie of star-studded sycophants. Joint Chiefs chair Marine Gen. Peter Pace did summon the courage recently to correct Rumsfeld and insist that our troops are required to stop the torture they witness, not simply to "report" it. We shall have to see how long Pace lasts in the job.
Hope in Whistleblowers
The good news is that truth tellers (also known as leakers) have stopped being intimidated and are doing their patriotic duty. The New York Times‘s James Risen, who first revealed the program allowing eavesdropping on Americans, has emphasized that this is the "purest case of whistleblowers coming forward" that he has encountered in his 25 years as a reporter. According to Risen, many of then were "tormented by their knowledge" of the way the Bush administration was "skirting the law." "Something was wrong and they came forward, I believe, simply to make the public aware of this," said Risen who, appropriately, calls the truth tellers "patriots."
Risen pointed out that these are people involved in the day-to-day struggle to defeat terrorism and who have intimate knowledge of the issues. "They came to us because they thought you have to follow the rules and you have to follow the law."
Risen’s sources, of course, are the very people the Justice Department has launched a major investigation to apprehend and, as the saying goes, "bring to justice."