12-07-2016  6:30 am      •     

The big puzzle is why anyone is shocked that President Bush eavesdropped on Americans. The National Security Agency for decades has routinely monitored the phone calls and telegrams of thousands of us. The rationale has always been the same, and Bush said it again in defending his spying — it was done to protect Americans from foreign threat or attack. The targets in the past have been Muslim extremists, communists, peace activists, Black radicals, civil rights leaders and drug peddlers. Even before President Harry Truman established the National Security Agency with a 1952 Cold War-era directive, government cryptologists had jumped in the domestic spy hunt with Operation Shamrock — a super-secret operation that forced private telegraphic companies to turn over the telegraphic correspondence of Americans to the government. The agency kicked its spy campaign into high gear in the 1960s, when the FBI demanded that the agency monitor antiwar activists, civil rights leaders and drug peddlers. The Senate select committee that investigated government domestic spying in 1976 pried open a tiny public window into the scope of government spying. But the agency slammed the window shut fast when it refused to cough up documents to the committee that would tell more about its surveillance of Americans. It claimed that disclosure would compromise national security. The few feeble congressional attempts over the years to probe the agency's domestic spying have gone nowhere. Even though rumors swirled that its eyes were riveted on more than a few Americans, congressional investigators showed no stomach to fight the agency's entrenched code of silence. There was a huge warning sign in 2002 that government agencies would jump deeper into the domestic spy business. President Bush scrapped the old 1970s guidelines that banned FBI spying on domestic organizations. His new directive gave the FBI blanket authority to plant agents in churches, mosques and political groups, and to ransack the Internet for potential subversives — all without the need or requirement to show probable cause of criminal wrongdoing. The revised Bush administration spy guidelines, along with the anti-terrorist provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, also gave local agents even wider discretion to determine what groups or individuals they can investigate and what tactics they can use to investigate them. The FBI wasted little time in flexing its new found intelligence muscle. It mounted a secret campaign in October 2003 to monitor and harass Iraq war protestors in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. The Sept. 11 terror attacks — and the heat Bush administration took for its towering intelligence lapses — gave Bush the excuse to plunge even deeper into domestic spying. But Bush also recognized that if word got out about National Security Agency domestic spying, it would ignite a firestorm of protest. Fortunately, it did. Despite Bush's weak and self-serving excuse that the spying thwarted potential terrorist attacks, the Supreme Court, the agency's own mandate and past executive orders explicitly bar domestic spying without court authorization. The exception is if there is a grave and imminent terror threat. That's the shaky legal dodge that Bush used to justify domestic spying. Bush and his defenders discount the monumental threat that spying on Americans poses to civil liberties. But it can't and shouldn't be shrugged off. During the debate over the creation of a domestic spy agency in 2002, even proponents recognized the potential threat of such an agency to civil liberties. As a safeguard they recommended that the agency not have expanded wiretap and surveillance powers or law enforcement authority, and that the Senate and House intelligence committees have strict oversight over its activities. These supposed fail-safe measures were hardly ironclad safeguards against abuses, but they understood that domestic spying has wreaked havoc on Americans' lives in the past. During the 1950s and 1960s, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover kicked domestic spying into high gear. Agents compiled secret dossiers, illegally wiretapped, used undercover plants and agents provocateurs, sent poison pen letters and staged Black bag jobs against Black activists and anti-war groups. Bush's claim that domestic spying poses no risk to civil liberties is laughable. Congress should demand that Bush and the National Security Agency come clean on domestic spying, and then promptly end it. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.

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