The Three Big Lies: How The Federal Government Kept Its Post-9/11 Spying On Americans Secret

14/05/2014 21:58

Tech Dirt

Last night, the first episode of Frontline's United States of Secrets aired, going deep into the history of "The Program," which is what the Bush (really Cheney) White House referred to the NSA program to spy on Americans based on incredibly shaky legal theories -- theories that were locked in a safe in Michael Hayden's office at the NSA, which almost no one was allowed to see. If you want additional background or summaries of the episode, Monday night's Fresh Air was great, including interviews with both the director of the program as well as Bill Binney and Kirk Wiebe -- two NSA whistleblowers (who we've mentioned before) who had their lives turned upside down due to totally bogus FBI raids, which were clearly a response to their whistleblowing activities. Another great summary comes from PRI's The World.

Either way, the thing that stands out to me is how the administration tried, desperately to stop anyone from revealing "The Program" with three big lies, which are discussed in all three of the links above. Here's the short summary of what happened any time anyone sought to raise issues about the legality of "The Program":

  • It's completely legal and has been judged as such (though don't ask why)
  • It's "unbelievably effective." You wouldn't believe the threats we're stopping -- and that's why we can't talk about it.
  • If you reveal it, hundreds of thousands of Americans may die in a future attack -- and the blood will be on your hands if you reveal and/or stop this program.

Of course, at this point, we now know that basically all three of those things are untrue. The "legality" was from a (still secret) memo from Cheney's lawyer David Addington that was kept almost totally secret. Some of the people who have seen it (including Jack Goldsmith at the OLC), apparently found that the legal reasoning was insanely weak, which may be part of the reason it was kept secret. It also notes, as has been discussed here in the past, that eventually the DOJ figured out a way to get the FISA Court's Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to issue a very questionable ruling effectively authorizing the program.

As for the "it's working," we've seen recently what a huge and incredible lie that was. Similarly, while the NSA and its defenders love to throw around the idea that if anyone reveals anything "blood will be on your hands," that threat is always issued when whistleblowing happens, and it's always a massive exaggeration.

Either way, those three big lies were effective in scaring people off from doing anything about the program -- including Bill Keller at the NY Times, who spiked James Risen's big story about the warrantless wiretapping (a part of the larger program) for over a year (well past the 2004 Presidential election). And, of course, since the program became known finally when Risen was getting ready to publish a book about it (and thus Keller felt he couldn't sit on the story any longer), those "hundreds of thousands of deaths" were (once again) proven to be nothing but bogus FUD.

Of course, in the past year, Ed Snowden has revealed many more details of The Program and what it later turned into, and thus provided even more evidence that the three claims were just ridiculous lies all along. And yet, for over a decade now, those three big lies have been at the heart of the NSA's program to spy on Americans.


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