“The National Security Agency’s capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.“
That dramatic warning came not from an individual who is typically held up as a symbol of anti-government paranoia. Rather, it was issued by one of the most admired and influential politicians among American liberals in the last several decades:
Frank Church of Idaho, the 4-term U.S. Senator who served from 1957 to 1981. He was, among other things, one of the Senate’s earliest opponents of the Vietnam War, a former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Chairman of the Committee (bearing his name) that in the mid-1970s investigated the widespread surveillance abuses committed under every President since FDR (that was the investigation that led to the enactment of FISA, the criminal law prohibiting the Executive Branch from intercepting the communications of American citizens without first obtaining a warrant from a court: the law which the Bush administration got caught violating and which, in response, was gutted by the Democratic-led Congress in 2008, with the support of then-Senator Obama; the abuses uncovered by the Church Committee also led to the enactment of further criminal prohibitions on the cooperation by America’s telecoms in any such illegal government spying, prohibitions that were waived away when the same 2008 Congress retroactively immunized America’s telecom giants from having done so).
At the time of the Church Committee, it was the FBI that conducted most domestic surveillance. Since its inception, the NSA was strictly barred from spying on American citizens or on American soil. That prohibition was centrally ingrained in the mindset of the agency. Church issued that above-quoted warning out of fear that, one day, the NSA’s massive, unparalleled surveillance capabilities would be directed inward, at the American people. Until the Church Committee’s investigation, most Americans, including its highest elected officials, knew almost nothing about the NSA (it was referred to as No Such Agency by its employees).
As James Bamford wrote about Church’s reaction to his own findings about the NSA’s capabilities, “he came away stunned.”
At the time, Church also said:
“I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
Of course, that bridge has long ago been crossed, without even much discussion, let alone controversy. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush ordered the NSA to spy on the communications of Americans on American soil, and they’ve been doing it ever since, with increasing aggression and fewer and fewer constraints.
That development is but one arm in the creation of an American Surveillance State that is, literally, ubiquitous — one that makes it close to impossible for American citizens to communicate or act without detection from the U.S. Government — a state of affairs Americans have long been taught since childhood is a hallmark of tyranny. Such are the that those who now echo the warnings issued 38 years ago by Sen. Church (when surveillance was much more restrained, both legally and technologically) are scorned by all serious people as radical hysterics.