Under Clinton, NY Times called surveillance "a necessity"
The controversy following revelations that U.S. intelligence agencies have monitored suspected terrorist related communications since 9/11 reflects a severe case of selective amnesia by the New York Times and other media opponents of President Bush. They certainly didn't show the same outrage when a much more invasive and indiscriminate domestic surveillance program came to light during the Clinton administration in the 1990's. At that time, the Times called the surveillance 'a necessity.'
'If you made a phone call today or sent an e—mail to a friend, there's a good chance what you said or wrote was captured and screened by the country's largest intelligence agency.' (Steve Kroft, CBS' 60 Minutes)
Those words were aired on February 27, 2000 to describe the National Security Agency and an electronic surveillance program called Echelon whose mission, according to Kroft,
'is to eavesdrop on enemies of the state: foreign countries, terrorist groups and drug cartels. But in the process, Echelon's computers capture virtually every electronic conversation around the world.'
Echelon was, or is (its existence has been under—reported in the American media), an electronic eavesdropping program conducted by the United States and a few select allies such as the United Kingdom.
Tellingly, the existence of the program was confirmed not by the New York Times or the Washington Post or by any other American media outlet — these were the Clinton years, after all, and the American media generally treats Democrat administrations far more gently than Republican administrations — but by an Australian government official in a statement made to an Australian television news show.
The Times actually defended the existence of Echelon when it reported on the program following the Australians' revelations.
'Few dispute the necessity of a system like Echelon to apprehend foreign spies, drug traffickers and terrorists....'
And the Times article quoted an N.S.A. official in assuring readers
'...that all Agency activities are conducted in accordance with the highest constitutional, legal and ethical standards.'
Of course, that was on May 27, 1999 and Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush, was president.
Even so, the article did admit that
'...many are concerned that the system could be abused to collect economic and political information.'
Despite the Times' reluctance to emphasize those concerns, one of the sources used in that same article, Patrick Poole, a lecturer in government and economics at Bannock Burn College in Franklin, Tenn., had already concluded in a study cited by the Times story that the program had been abused in both ways.
'ECHELON is also being used for purposes well outside its original mission. The regular discovery of domestic surveillance targeted at American civilians for reasons of 'unpopular' political affiliation or for no probable cause at all... What was once designed to target a select list of communist countries and terrorist states is now indiscriminately directed against virtually every citizen in the world,' Poole concluded.
The Times article also referenced a European Union report on Echelon. The report was conducted after E.U. members became concerned that their citizens' rights may have been violated. One of the revelations of that study was that the N.S.A. used partner countries' intelligence agencies to routinely circumvent legal restrictions against domestic spying.
'For example, [author Nicky] Hager has described how New Zealand officials were instructed to remove the names of identifiable UKUSA citizens or companies from their reports, inserting instead words such as 'a Canadian citizen' or 'a US company'. British Comint [Communications intelligence] staff have described following similar procedures in respect of US citizens following the introduction of legislation to limit NSA's domestic intelligence activities in 1978.'
Further, the E.U. report concluded that intelligence agencies did not feel particularly constrained by legal restrictions requiring search warrants.
'Comint agencies conduct broad international communications 'trawling' activities, and operate under general warrants. Such operations do not require or even suppose that the parties they intercept are criminals.'
The current controversy follows a Times report that, since 9/11, U.S.
intelligence agencies are eavesdropping at any time on up to 500 people in the U.S. suspected of conducting international communications with terrorists. Under Echelon, the Clinton administration was spying on just about everyone.
'The US National Security Agency (NSA) has created a global spy system, codename ECHELON, which captures and analyzes virtually every phone call, fax, email and telex message sent anywhere in the world,'
Poole summarized in his study on the program.
According to an April, 2000 article in PC World magazine, experts who studied Echelon concluded that
'Project Echelon's equipment can process 1 million message inputs every 30 minutes.'
In the February, 2000 60 Minutes story, former spy Mike Frost made clear that Echelon monitored practically every conversation — no matter how seemingly innocent — during the Clinton years.
'A lady had been to a school play the night before, and her son was in the school play and she thought he did a——a lousy job. Next morning, she was talking on the telephone to her friend, and she said to her friend something like this, 'Oh, Danny really bombed last night,' just like that. The computer spit that conversation out. The analyst that was looking at it was not too sure about what the conversation w——was referring to, so erring on the side of caution, he listed that lady and her phone number in the database as a possible terrorist.'
'This is not urban legend you're talking about. This actually happened?'
'Factual. Absolutely fact. No legend here.'
Even as the Times defended Echelon as 'a necessity' in 1999, evidence already existed that electronic surveillance had previously been misused by the Clinton Administration for political purposes. Intelligence officials told Insight Magazine in 1997 that a 1993 conference of Asian and Pacific world leaders hosted by Clinton in Seattle had been spied on by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Further, the magazine reported that information obtained by the spying had been passed on to big Democrat corporate donors to use against their competitors. The Insight story added that the mis—use of the surveillance for political reasons caused the intelligence sources to reveal the operation.
'The only reason it has come to light is because of concerns raised by high—level sources within federal law—enforcement and intelligence circles that the operation was compromised by politicians —— including
mid— and senior—level White House aides —— either on behalf of or in support of President Clinton and major donor—friends who helped him and the Democratic National Committee, or DNC, raise money.'
So, during the Clinton Administration, evidence existed (all of the information used in this article was available at the time) that:
—an invasive, extensive domestic eavesdropping program was aimed at every U.S. citizen;
—intelligence agencies were using allies to circumvent constitutional restrictions;
—and the administration was selling at least some secret intelligence for political donations.
These revelations were met by the New York Times and others in the mainstream media by the sound of one hand clapping. Now, reports that the Bush Administration approved electronic eavesdropping, strictly limited to international communications, of a relative handful of suspected terrorists have created a media frenzy in the Times and elsewhere.
The Times has historically been referred to as 'the Grey Lady.' That grey is beginning to look just plain grimy, and many of us can no longer consider her a lady.
William Tate is a writer and researcher and former broadcast journalist. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.