Shielding Government Surveillance with Secrecy

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Government agencies have often tried to shield new surveillance technologies behind a cloak of secrecy, according to Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

President Bush repeated his defense of domestic spying activities. Over the weekend, he said his decision to let the intelligence community listen in on phone calls between Americans and terror suspects without a court warrant is legal. NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr says it's not the first time the government has tried to shield new surveillance techniques behind a cloak of secrecy.

DANIEL SCHORR:

I can vividly remember the high-flying U2 spy plane that Lockheed developed for the CIA, unknown to the public until the Russians shot one down on May 1st, 1960, sending Nikita Khrushchev storming out of the Paris summit. Aerial intelligence was largely replaced by the intelligence satellite, which could be used not only for pictures of the ground, but for other purposes like space-based radar. For a long time, the existence of the spy satellites was a deep secret. They were referred to in arms control talks as `national technical means of verification.'

In the 1970s, the Navy used submarines to tap underwater Soviet cables under the ice off Murmansk, secretly, that is, until the existence of the submarine program was betrayed to the Russians by a spy in the US Navy.

The post-9/11 war against terror brought to light new forms of secret surveillance. One was the Total Information Awareness office operated by a hush-hush Pentagon agency that assembled and computerized every kind of data about suspects from medical records to travel plans. It was headed by Admiral John Poindexter, who resigned when someone let the cat out of the bag. He said he still thought his data scanning system was `a very good idea.'

So now we have the NSA's program of assembling and analyzing huge volumes of telephone and Internet communications in the hope of forestalling a terrorist act; all this without a warrant from the special court established for that purpose. Periodically, the government will establish some secret program that will sacrifice a measure of individual freedom to some notion of national security. Periodically, thanks, perhaps, to an outraged whistle-blower, the surveillance plan will be revealed. And periodically, the government will try to wreak vengeance on the one who told, and life in this democracy will go on. This is Daniel Schorr.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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