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2006-01-24

NSA Expert Jim Bamford on Domestic Wiretapping: The Bush Administration Has "Decided Simply to Violate the Law"

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The Bush administration has launched a public-relations offensive to defend the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without court warrants. We speak with James Bamford, author of several books on intelligence, including the first book ever written about the NSA. Bamford is also a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit that charges the spying program violates Americans’ rights to free speech and privacy under the first and fourth amendments of the Constitution. [includes rush transcript]

We look at domestic surveillance and the National Security Agency:

  • Enemy of the State, excerpt of 1998 movie.

That was an excerpt of the 1998 Hollywood blockbuster "Enemy of the State" starring Gene Hackman and Will Smith. The film portrayed the National Security Agency as a powerful and sinister government organization. It was the first time many Americans had ever heard of the NSA. At the time, newly-appointed NSA director General Michael Hayden took it upon himself to deal with the fallout. Hayden appeared on talk shows across the country to counter the negative publicity of the film.

Eight years later, Hayden is back in the public eye–this time to defend the NSA’s eavesdropping of U.S. citizens without court warrants. President Bush secretly authorized the program following the Sept. 11 attacks. In a speech and question-and-answer session at the National Press Club in Washington Monday, Hayden — now the deputy director of national intelligence — defended the program as "targeted and focused" and said that it had succeeded in gathering information they would not have otherwise been able to get.

In a few minutes, we’ll play excerpts of the press conference. But first we speak with NSA expert, author James Bamford.

  • James Bamford, author of several books including the first book ever written about the National Security Agency called "The Puzzle Palace : Inside America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization." He is also author of Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency; and most recently, "A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies".

We turn to our interview with former NSA intelligence agent, Russell Tice. We first spoke to Tice in a Democracy Now exclusive on January 3rd–one week before he appeared on ABC News. For the past two decades, Tice has worked in the intelligence field both inside and outside government, most recently with the National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency. He was fired in May 2005 after he spoke out as a whistleblower. In the interview, Tice spoke about the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act–or FISA. The statute requires government agencies to obtain a court order before to conduct domestic intelligence surveillance.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

EDWARD "BRILL" LYLE: The National Security Agency conducts worldwide surveillance. Fax, phones, satellite communication. They’re the only ones in the country, including the military, who could possibly have anything like this.

ROBERT CLAYTON DEAN: Why are they after me?

EDWARD "BRILL" LYLE: I don’t know, and I don’t wanna know. Here they come. I thought these sat dishes would scramble their signals.

AIR ONE: Control, this is Air One. Repeat coordinates.

CONTROL: 1005 Chambers Avenue.

EDWARD "BRILL" LYLE: You’re transmitting. They still have a signal on you. Your collar, your belt, your zipper. Get rid of your clothes, all of them.

ROBERT CLAYTON DEAN: But then what am I supposed to do?

EDWARD "BRILL" LYLE: Nothing. You live another day, I’ll be very impressed.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt of the 1998 Hollywood blockbuster, Enemy of the State, starring Gene Hackman and Will Smith. The film portrayed the National Security Agency as a powerful sinister government organization. It was the first time many Americans had ever heard of the N.S.A. At the time, newly appointed N.S.A. director, General Michael Hayden, took it upon himself to deal with the fallout. He appeared on talk shows across the country to counter the negative publicity of the film.

Eight years later, Hayden is back in the public eye, this time to defend the N.S.A.’s eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without court warrants. President Bush secretly authorized the program following the September 11 attacks. In a speech and question-and-answer session at the National Press Club in Washington Monday, Hayden, now the Deputy Director of National Intelligence, defended the program as "targeted and focused" and said it had succeeded in gathering information they would not have otherwise been able to get.

In a few minutes, we’ll play excerpts of this rare back-and-forth. But first, we’ll speak with Jim Bamford. He’s the author of several books, including the first book ever written about the N.S.A., The Puzzle Palace: Inside America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization, also author of Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency. Bamford was at Hayden’s news conference Monday. He’s also suing the government over potentially spying on him. Jim Bamford, can you set the scene?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, it was very interesting yesterday. It was a site I thought I’d never see. The Director of the N.S.A., actually the former director of N.S.A., standing in front of a roomful of journalists in the National Press Club, taking questions, and actually discussing to some degree these very, very secret operation, an operation that the government considered the most secret operation in the entire U.S. federal government. So it was very interesting.

Most of the time, General Hayden was up there defending the program, explaining that this is being done to protect the American citizens. And he went on to explain that they had a lot of legal authorities behind them. The Attorney General had signed off on it. His own lawyers had signed off on it. The White House had signed off on it. So he was fairly confident that he had the legal right to do what he did, which was turn N.S.A.’s big ear inward on the American public without getting any warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, as is required by the FISA Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim, you are suing — the ACLU is suing, on your behalf, the government, around the issue of spying. Why you?

JAMES BAMFORD: I’m one of a number of plaintiffs. There’s other plaintiffs also, and they stretch across the political spectrum. Christopher Hitchens is also on there. I was against the war in Iraq. Christopher Hitchens was for the war in Iraq. Larry Diamond’s a conservative with a think tank out in California, the Hoover Institute. So it’s a variety of people. And we all have dealt a great deal with people in Iraq, news organizations, sources, government officials, and so there’s a good chance, since Iraq and Afghanistan were two of the key targets of N.S.A., that we might have been swept up in this vacuum cleaner of eavesdropping.

But, again, we’re sort of representative. It’s not really us. We’re trying to be representative of the rest of the public. There’s nearly 300 million people out there who are potential targets. Some of those people out there may be having their conversations now in some vault in N.S.A. So the problem you have right now is that there was no buffer, no firewall between N.S.A.'s domestic spying and the American public. So that's one of the reasons the suit was brought, to try to, number one, stop the operation, because it’s still going on, and number two, try to find out who it was that they were eavesdropping on.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim, we’re going to go to excerpts of the back-and-forth, that includes your questioning of Michael Hayden. But before we do that, I wanted to ask about what is being repeated over and over again right now. Rove started this whole campaign to justify the N.S.A. spying. Bush is going around the country now and will be tomorrow, on Wednesday, at the N.S.A., campaigning for what he’s done; of course, Michael Hayden, yesterday. They keep repeating the saying that polls show Americans are for this.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, I’ve seen other polls that say — it depends on how you ask the question, I think, a lot of times. I think if they ask it generically, they’re somewhat for it, but if they ask it specifically, "Should N.S.A. be allowed to eaves drop on American citizens without a warrant?" then I think it goes the other way.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, I actually think specifically they say if they have to spy to prevent an attack if they knew that there was going to be an attack, and then people say yes.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, I would say yes, too. The only problem is, I would say yes, as long as there is a intermediary making the decision, a federal district court judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, which is the way it should be. What I disagree with and what, I think, most people, if they’re asked, disagree with is allowing the Bush administration to take the place of all three branches of government. They’re basically changing the law, they’re interpreting the law, and they’re executing the law . And that’s not the way it’s supposed to work in a democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jim Bamford, who has sued the government, along with other people, around the issue of spying on American citizens in this country. In a few minutes, we’re going to play excerpts of the news conference with Michael Hayden, including Jim Bamford’s questioning. But first, we want to play a clip of our interview with former N.S.A. intelligence agent, Russell Tice. We first spoke to Tice in a Democracy Now! exclusive, January 3rd, one week before he appeared on ABC News. For the past two decades, Tice has worked in the intelligence field, both inside and outside government, most recently with the N.S.A. and Defense Intelligence Agency. He was fired, May 2005, after he spoke out as a whistleblower In the interview, Tice spoke about the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, the statute requiring government agencies to obtain a court order before conducting domestic intelligence surveillance. This is what Russell Tice had to say.

RUSSELL TICE: The FISA court — it’s not very difficult to get something through a FISA court. I kinda liken the FISA court to a monkey with a rubber stamp. The monkey sees a name, the monkey sees a word justification with a block of information. It can’t read the block, but it just stamps "affirmed" on the block, and a banana chip rolls out, and then the next paper rolls in front of the monkey. When you have like 20,000 requests and only, I think, four were turned down, you can’t look at the FISA court as anything different.

So, you have to ask yourself the question: Why would someone want to go around the FISA court in something like this? I would think the answer could be that this thing is a lot bigger than even the President has been told it is, and that ultimately a vacuum cleaner approach may have been used, in which case you don’t get names, and that’s ultimately why you wouldn’t go to the FISA court. And I think that’s something Congress needs to address. They need to find out exactly how this system was operated and ultimately determine whether this was indeed a very focused effort or whether this was a vacuum cleaner-type scenario.

AMY GOODMAN: Russell Tice on Democracy Now! just a few weeks ago. He is a former National Security Agency agent, N.S.A. intelligence agent, which is particularly relevant in light of the first question at Monday’s rare news conference held by Deputy Director of National Intelligence and former N.S.A. chief, Michael Hayden, at the National Press Club. This is Hayden being questioned by Wayne Madsen, investigative journalist based in Washington.

WAYNE MADSEN: General, how do you explain the fact that there were several rare spectacles of whistleblowers coming forward at N.S.A., especially after 9/11, something that hasn’t really happened in the past, who have complained about violations of FISA and the United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18, which implements the law at the agency?

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN: I talked to the N.S.A. staff on Friday. The N.S.A. Inspector General reports to me, as of last Friday, from the inception of this program through last Friday night, not a single employee of the National Security Agency has addressed a concern about this program to the N.S.A. I.G. I should also add that no member of the N.S.A. workforce who has been asked to be included in this program has responded to that request with anything except enthusiasm. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll come back to this rare news conference with the Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Michael Hayden, in a minute.

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