In 1975, when I was a 27-year-old staffer on the Church Committee that investigated our intelligence community, my boss, then-Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) made this statement on an August 1975 broadcast of “Meet the Press”:
In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. … Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that 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 this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology. … 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.
That was 40 years ago – before cell phones, before the Internet, before email, before personal computers, before we even knew the meaning of the phrase “digital communications.” Church saw around the corner and could have made this statement if he was sitting next to Rand Paul on the Senate floor Tuesday.
One of my jobs on the Church Committee was to investigate the NSA’s technology and its practice of creating “watch lists” of Americans – Americans who protested the Vietnam War, demonstrated for civil rights or questioned their government. Church fully understood the abuse that had taken place and what it meant for the future. What he, or we, did not understand at the time was that both then-Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), a member of the committee, and Church were both put on the watch list to be monitored.
[READ: Rand Paul’s Big Gift]
So, where are we now and what should be done now?
Despite Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s rants, 67 senators voted to reform the Patriot Act and curb NSA’s bulk collection of American’s phone records and to make the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court at least somewhat more transparent. That is a major change from when the Patriot Act was enacted hastily in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
But there is much more that needs to be done after Tuesday’s Associated Press revelations about FBI spy planes. Evidently, the FBI has more than 100 secret aircraft it is using to collect information from Americans’ cell phones and photograph areas and individuals in cities across the United States. Over a recent 30-day period, 11 states and 30 cities were spied upon with these aircraft, some with the capability of using the “cell-site simulator” (code name: Stingray). There were no warrants issued for video surveillance, and only recently were some warrants required for the cell phone intervention.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law are both calling for increased oversight, reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation and serious examination of the impact of the new technology on Americans’ basic privacy. Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act allows for mass surveillance of online communications, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation believes it should be curtailed.
The House and the Senate passed the new USA Freedom Act and the president signed it, but that is only a first step. If we are truly going to get a handle on everything from drones to detention camps to torture, as well as NSA surveillance, we need a full investigation of our intelligence agencies similar to the Church Committee and serious legal and executive remedies.