A Brief History of the NSA

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Daniel Schorr reflects on the history of the National Security Agency and the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

I had a smile last Wednesday when President Bush was shown on television visiting the National Security Agency at Ft. Meade, Maryland, and telling the eavesdroppers that we're doing a good job on the anti-terrorism front.

HANSEN: NPR Senior News Analyst, Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: The existence of the multi-billion dollar agency had been a deep secret until it was unveiled in a Senate investigation in 1975. And when I tried to do an on-camera report for CBS standing outside the NSA gate, a U.S. Marine warned me I would be shot if I didn't go away. I didn't stay to test my First Amendment rights.

Testifying before a Senate committee in 1975, the NSA's director, General Lou Allen, acknowledged that on request of other agencies, the NSA maintained watch lists with hundreds of names, many of them Americans whose phone calls were being monitored in an effort to establish foreign connections of anti-war dissidents. There were also suspected drug traffickers and potential assassins on these lists.

Out of that Senate investigation came the conclusion that there was good reason for some of the intercepts, but that there had to be some kind of judicial control to prevent breaches of civil liberties. And from that conclusion was born the 1978 act called FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA established a secret court in charge of issuing warrants for wiretaps when requested. The court has refused very few applications and the law allows when necessary for surveillance to begin before the warrant has been issued. There is a saying that if something ain't broke, don't fix it. But the Bush administration, for reasons hard to understand, has taken the position that it can ignore FISA, relying on a president's inherent power to order surveillance all on his own.

And so 30 years after the Senate revealed the existence of the NSA, America's big ear, the issue is back before the Senate again. Chairman Arlen Specter has announced judiciary committee hearings starting February 6. And with President Bush, as with President Nixon then, the issue is whether the president is a law unto himself.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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