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New York Times warned of NSA’s growing power more than 30 years ago

By   /   August 22, 2013  /   2 Comments

By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org

If you think the National Security Agency’s questionably-legal tactics are relatively new invention, the New York Times has a story you ought to read.

Oh, not today’s New York Times.  The New York Times from March 27, 1983.

More than thirty years ago, Times reporter David Burnham filed a story about the growing power of the NSA and the concerns it raised about privacy and civil liberties.  This was before the Internet, before the Patriot Act and before the War on Terror, but the groundwork for what would become the world’s largest secret electronic surveillance operation have been in place for a long time.

WE'VE BEEN DOING THIS FOR A LONG TIME: The NSA has been spying on Americans for more than thirty years. New York Times writer David Burnham detailed the agency's growing power in 1983.

WE’VE BEEN DOING THIS FOR A LONG TIME: The NSA has been spying on Americans for more than thirty years. New York Times writer David Burnham detailed the agency’s growing power in 1983.

Ominously titled “The silent power of the NSA” – actually an excerpt from a book Burnham was writing about the growth of computer technology in government – the article looks downright prophetic in hindsight.

“A Federal Court of Appeals recently ruled that the largest and most secretive intelligence agency of the United States, the National Security Agency, may lawfully intercept the overseas communications of Americans even if it has no reason to believe they are engaged in illegal activities,” Burnham wrote. “The ruling, which also allows summaries of these conversations to be sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, significantly broadens the already generous authority of the N.S.A. to keep track of American citizens.”

Over the years since the NSA’s creation – by executive order of President Harry Truman in 1952, by the way – the “virtually unknown federal agency,” sought to enlarge its power without going through the civilian channels that are supposed to direct the agency, he reported.

And even in those pre-Internet days, the NSA was operating “a massive bank of what are believed to be the largest and most advanced computers now available to any bureaucracy in the world.”

According to the article, the NSA gathered information on approximately 75,000 Americans between 1952 and 1974, including files on civil rights activists and anti-war protesters.  It worked with the Central Intelligence Agency to track some of those individuals during the Vietnam War.

Today, the NSA insists on complete secrecy in the name of protecting Americans from terrorists, but it seems to have learned that trick decades ago, when the same argument was made about protecting the nation from the Soviet Union during the cold war.

“No laws define the limits of the N.S.A.’s power. No Congressional committee subjects the agency’s budget to a systematic, informed and skeptical review. With unknown billions of Federal dollars, the agency purchases the most sophisticated communications and computer equipment in the world,” Burnham wrote.  “Every day, in almost every area of culture and commerce, systems and procedures are being adopted by private companies and organizations as well as by the nation’s security leaders that make it easier for the N.S.A. to dominate American society should it ever decide such action is necessary.”

If only he had known.

H/T to Rob Beschizza at Bong Bong.



Eric is a reporter for Watchdog.org and former bureau chief for Pennsylvania Independent. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he enjoys great weather and low taxes while writing about state governments, pensions, labor issues and economic/civil liberty. Previously, he worked for more than three years in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, covering Pennsylvania state politics and occasionally sneaking across the border to Delaware to buy six-packs of beer. He has also lived (in order of desirability) in Brussels, Belgium, Pennsburg, Pa., Fairfield, Conn., and Rochester, N.Y. His work has appeared in Reason Magazine, National Review Online, The Freeman Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Examiner and elsewhere. He received a bachelor's degree from Fairfield University in 2009, but he refuses to hang on his wall until his student loans are fully paid off sometime in the mid-2020s. When he steps away from the computer, he enjoys drinking craft beers in classy bars, cheering for an eclectic mix of favorite sports teams (mostly based in Philadelphia) and traveling to new places.

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