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9/11 footnote surfaces in 1999 account of NSA Echelon snoop controversy

This radome in Yorkshire (UK) encloses a microwave antenna. [Photo: Matt Crypto via Wikipedia]

"As long as the rules are conformed with, I think we're OK. The question is whether NSA's really obeying the rules."—John Pike/Oct. 21, 1999 [Fox News]

Government spying is nothing new. There’s the positive aspect of that practice—keeping Americans alive by staying a step ahead of enemy nations.

There’s the negative aspect as well. Listening systems are maintained and used by government employees and contractors. Obviously, when a program is top secret, oversight is a challenge. How do we know our privacy isn’t being trampled?

We have short memories, but considering the current discussion about NSA snooping, it’s useful to recall that we had a similar controversy in the 1990s.

My memory is long (just ask my husband), but I’d forgotten the term Echelon completely until a fellow named Bob called in to The Cindy Graves Show on WBOB AM 600. I do a weekly news analysis for Graves and sometimes I host the show.

So credit goes to Bob for reminding us when he phoned in the other day that Echelon was a similar issue.

Echelon is “an automated global interception and relay system operated by intelligence agencies in five nations, led by the U.S. National Security Agency.”

Echelon, said The Washington Post, “may intercept as many as 3 billion communications each day, including phone calls, e-mail messages and satellite transmissions.”

For many years, if you mentioned such a program in conversation, you’d pretty much be considered a tin-foil hat type. Now we know the stuff of conspiracy enthusiasts was real.

It took many years for Echelon’s existence to be confirmed. By 2001, the European Parliament was so concerned, hearings were held and a report was published.

Most governments were concerned about theft of trade secrets more than intrusion on individuals’ privacy although the latter was an issue of concern. WaPo said what sparked the public outcry came from the EP report—“all e-mail, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency.”

The report also declared the existence of Echelon was “no longer in doubt.”

By the end of President Bill Clinton’s second term, many of us had lost faith in him. This tends to happen with presidents as they approach the final days, regardless of party. Clinton, however, had drawn controversy for sexual exploits as well as his foreign policy, among other matters.

Bear in mind that in a second fatwa 1998, Osama bin Laden officially declared war on the U.S. and Israel. Bin Laden parsed his fatwa in political terms, claiming that Muslim lands had been occupied. The Gulf War was still an issue in the Mideast. Bin Laden called for the killing of all Americans, civilian or otherwise:

We -- with God's help -- call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it.

Clinton took it somewhat seriously, but he did not put a stop to al Qaeda at a time when the movement might have been diluted. President George Bush took office in 2001 after an extended dispute about the election. Bush followed Clinton’s policy. After all, if a president who took office after a controversial election had engaged in war against a leader Clinton downplayed, we can imagine the public furor here at home.

What’s worth pointing out is another of those footnotes we come across from time to time. We ask ourselves What if? and we wonder if we’d heeded the signs, would thousands of Americans not been killed in the 9/11/2001 attacks and the war that finally came after an attack on our homeland.

Clinton’s administration obstructed the sharing of information between spy agencies and law enforcement. His administration also endorsed trying suspects who were de facto enemy combatants—the Blind Sheikh is one example—in civilian courts.

In 1999, a Florida congressman had questions about Clinton’s reluctance to approve “new surveillance programs.”

In the WaPo story cited here, there’s a footnote of sorts that offers the flip side of the coin on spying:

“Indeed, the NSA's troubles in Congress began this spring when Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, asked the agency for internal documents about its compliance with FISA because he thought NSA lawyers were too cautious in approving new surveillance programs.—(Nov. 13, 1999)

The underlying issue in all of this relates to how much trust we can put in a government that has grown so large it cannot be managed or overseen effectively. That lack of trust cost us dearly, more than once. Will it happen again with the latest NSA snoop controversy?

Bob’s mention of Echelon rekindled memories of the end of Clinton’s tenure and the controversy about spying at a time when enemies of the West were making preparations to hit the U.S. hard.

GlobalSecurity.org has mention of Echelon:

“ECHELON consists of a global network of computers that automatically search through millions of intercepted for pre-programmed keywords or fax, telex and e-mail addresses. Every word of every message in the frequencies and channels selected at a station is automatically searched. The processors in the network are known as the ECHELON Dictionaries. ECHELON connects all these computers and allows the individual stations to function as distributed elements an integrated system. An ECHELON station's Dictionary contains not only its parent agency's chosen keywords, but also lists for each of the other four agencies in the UKUSA system. [NSA, GCHQ, DSD, GCSB and CSE]”

Goss’ 1999 complaint is worth reviewing, considering the fact the war goes on, because what bin Laden began may have been interrupted, but it certainly has not been neutered. (Analysis by Kay B. Day/June 14, 2013)

Ed. Note: Graves' show airs on WBOB 600 AM weekdays from 12-1 p.m. The show is also streamed live on the Web at wbobradio.com.

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