Mass Surveillance and the Memory Hole

The NSA’s recent destruction of evidence in contravention of a court order follows a long-established pattern of intelligence abuses, as Ted Snider explains.

Seal of the National Security Agency

By Ted Snider

Though it received disturbingly little attention – perhaps a symptom of desensitization to news that we are constantly being surveilled – it was recently revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) destroyed data about some of its surveillance activity that it was under court order to preserve. The NSA was ordered to save the data in 2007 because of pending lawsuits over the questionable legality of Bush ordered warrantless wiretaps of American digital and telecommunications. The data was evidence, and the NSA destroyed evidence.

It seems that the NSA not only destroyed evidence but serially mislead the courts by claiming that it was complying with court orders while it simultaneously was not in compliance: the NSA was not preserving internet communications that were intercepted for several years between 2001 and 2007. Though as late as 2014, the NSA was assuring the court that it was “preserving magnetic/digital tapes of the Internet content intercepted under the [Presidential Surveillance Program] since the inception of the program,” the NSA has now confessed that assurance “may have been only partially accurate.”

The NSA claims that the destruction of data happened unintentionally during a general cleaning undertaken to “free-up space.” It is remarkable that the NSA has managed to save virtually every communication that every one has made in case it could be used against him but was not competent enough to avoid accidentally deleting data that could be used against them.

The NSA is not the only American intelligence agency to have spied on Americans and lied about it. That began at least 65 years ago. At that time, the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division began recording the names and addresses on letters being mailed by Americans to the Soviet Union. The purpose was to identify possible Soviet spies in America, but the letters were never opened.

That all changed, though, in December of 1955, when CIA Counterintelligence chief Jim Angleton requested and received authorization to open and copy the content of the letters. The surveillance operation was codenamed HT/LINGUAL, and, by 1958, when the FBI joined in the illegal fun, it was opening over 8,000 letters a year. The FBI name for the joint program was Project HUNTER. By 1967, the number of letters read by LINGUAL/HUNTER reached 23,617.

Whereas the modern-day NSA had to destroy evidence of surveillance the president had authorized, the CIA had no such need to destroy evidence to protect the president because the president never knew. According to CIA historian John Prados, no American president ever knew about Project LINGUAL. It had been kept secret, not just from Americans, but from their presidents: all of them.

Later, though, like the NSA, the CIA would need to employ the Orwellian memory hole to keep their secrets. In 2016, the CIA “mistakenly” destroyed its copy of the Senate report on detention and torture, and then, in an “inadvertent” error, deleted the hard disk backup. The report is full of files on the CIA’s use of torture techniques, including waterboarding.  Like the NSA, the CIA was simultaneously assuring the court that it was compliantly preserving the document, and, like the NSA, the CIA claimed the deletion was “inadvertent.”

But that was not the first time that the CIA deliberately destroyed evidence of torture. In May of 2002, CIA director George Tenet promoted Jose A. Rodriguez to head of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorist Center. At the time, there were ninety-two videotapes that documented harsh interrogation: a euphemism for torture.

In a meeting held on January 10, 2003, CIA director Tenet made the decision to have those videotapes destroyed. The next month, in a meeting with congressional leaders, Rodriguez and others told Congress for the first time that “enhanced interrogation” – that is, torture – had been approved by lawyers and that there were videotapes. At that time, the CIA’s general consul, Scott Muller, informed the congressmen at the meeting that it was the intention of the CIA to destroy those videotapes. However, in the face of some opposition, the destruction plan was put on hold.

The CIA pretended at times that it wanted to destroy the tapes for reasons of national security and to protect the officers depicted in the tapes. But the real reason was the fear caused by the realization that the videotapes documented war crimes. The problem was that on May 11, 2004, White House lawyers Alberto Gonzales and David Addington explicitly ordered the CIA not to destroy the tapes. By November 2005, the CIA had been clearly instructed to confer with the White House before doing anything with the tapes.

But as the existence of black prison torture cites became known in 2005, Rodriguez explicitly set out to ensure the destruction of the taped evidence even though, by now—as in the NSA case today–that action would constitute destruction of evidence, since they had been subpoenaed as evidence by courts and commissions looking into torture following 9/11.

In November of 2005, Rodriguez personally ordered the destruction of the torture videotapes even though, by now, no less than seven court orders existed ordering their preservation. According to Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, he sent this order despite having just received a cable from CIA headquarters saying not to destroy them yet, but to hold on to them a little longer.

On March 2, 2009, the New York Times reported that federal prosecutors disclosed for the first time that the CIA had “destroyed 92 videotapes documenting the harsh interrogations of two Qaeda suspects in CIA detention.” The order to destroy the tapes, the Times says, was given by Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., who at the time was the head of the spy agency’s clandestine service.”

Although an accountability board found that Rodriguez had acted in violation of his knowledge that the CIA and the White House had ordered the tapes preserved, Rodriguez received only a letter of reprimand. He never went to prison for his crime. Neither did Jim Angleton. Neither, so far, has anyone from the NSA: evidence that, perhaps not only the public has become desensitized to mass surveillance and torture, but that Washington has too.

Evidence of illegal mass surveillance and of torture seem to go down the Washington memory hole like planes over the Bermuda Triangle.

Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in U.S. foreign policy and history.

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21 comments for “Mass Surveillance and the Memory Hole

  1. Tom Welsh
    January 31, 2018 at 10:14 am

    “It is remarkable that the NSA has managed to save virtually every communication that every one has made in case it could be used against him but was not competent enough to avoid accidentally deleting data that could be used against them”.

    Very nicely expressed!

  2. Mild-ly - Facetious
    January 31, 2018 at 10:16 am

    I wonder what the author thinks of Rep. Nenes’ Chop Shop Cut & Paste “MEMO” … ?

  3. Tom Welsh
    January 31, 2018 at 10:18 am

    Over and over and over again we see the same pattern, and it’s by no means new. Indeed, similar examples can be cited going all the way back to the foundation of the USA.

    The pattern is that everyone makes a great fuss about how free and democratic and law-abiding the USA is, and how much better than everyone else this makes them. In particular, there is much back-slapping about “a country ruled by laws, not men”.

    Yet every single time that the law becomes inconvenient to the powers that be, they simply ignore it and do exactly whatever they please. Sometimes they see fit to take steps to conceal their conduct; other times the flaunt it.

    I suggest a slight vchange to the popular slogan. It should be, “A country ruled by men who like to pretend it is ruled by laws, not men”.

    • Joe Wallace
      February 1, 2018 at 9:31 pm

      Tom Welsh:

      Bravo! Exactly right!

  4. Tom Welsh
    January 31, 2018 at 10:21 am

    I’d like to propose that, whenever an agency such as the NSA or the CIA frustrates a court’s purpose in ordering disclosure – whether by simply not complying, or by transparent excuses about “inadvertent deletion” – the court should deal with that agency exactly as it would with a non-compliant private citizen.

    The director of the agency (and any other officers deemed complicit) should be jailed for contempt of court until they cough up the required evidence.

    If it turns out that they really have irretrievably deleted it, they can stay in jail until they die.

    But such a course of action could happen only in a country that really respected the law.

    • mike k
      January 31, 2018 at 11:01 am

      Good points Tom. Up in the power stratosphere, it’s the “wild west” all over again. As Thrasymachus said in Plato’s Republic, “justice is the interest of the stronger.” Honesty is for suckers.

    • Nancy
      January 31, 2018 at 2:29 pm

      I wholeheartedly support your proposal! If it were implemented, it would certainly serve as a deterrent to these criminal practices.
      That’s a big “if” though.

    • willem
      January 31, 2018 at 2:52 pm

      You assume, of course, that nothing the suspect agency has on file can be used as leverage against any authority figure audacious enough to try to actually enforce the law…

    • Anon
      January 31, 2018 at 7:08 pm

      One nation, under gangsters, with liberty and justice for gangsters.

  5. Joe Tedesky
    January 31, 2018 at 10:35 am

    It must excite the spirits of J Edgar Hoover, and Allen Dulles, that their legacy of separating the government from the people with their hidden agendas and their slimy bureaucracy, is still moving along quite nicely.

    • mike k
      January 31, 2018 at 10:57 am

      Hoover and Dulles would indeed be chuckling in their graves these days, except it is too hot where they are now to find much to laugh about!

    • Sam F
      January 31, 2018 at 7:13 pm

      Their memory will indeed fade until their names only signify sleazy characters, who could not resist abusing the power entrusted to them, who brought low the once proud democracy.

  6. mike k
    January 31, 2018 at 11:06 am

    Big Brother loves you so much, he wants to know all about you, just so he can keep you safe from all the bad guys out there. BB is really there to protect you, just like your friendly neighborhood Mafia……..

  7. john wilson
    January 31, 2018 at 12:58 pm

    When the secret organisations together with the deep state can ignore orders from the courts its time to start worrying. We regularly hear the statement that no one is above the law, but this doesn’t appear to apply the the NSA and others in the deep state.

  8. Virginia
    January 31, 2018 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks for the run down of how our intelligence agencies govern themselves according to “convenience,” Mr. Snider. And thanks for contributing your excellent insights Tom, Mike, Joe and John.

  9. David Smith
    January 31, 2018 at 1:54 pm

    It is called Obstruction of Justice, as was Rosemary Woods 18 minute “accidental” erasure of the Nixon tapes

  10. Lois Gagnon
    January 31, 2018 at 10:15 pm

    Part of the reason these psychopaths keep getting away with their criminality is because the public is too distracted to act out their displeasure over these incidences in a manner inconvenient enough to authority to at the very least make it appear they are trying to do something about it.

    Egregious behavior continues to be normalized to the point we have a virtual mafia running the government.

  11. February 1, 2018 at 12:32 am

    If a surveillance system considered an energy-generating device, how much total energy it takes to construct it compared to the energy it will ever produce?
    It seems that physics has a parallel;

    “No device can generate energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it”.

  12. evelync
    February 1, 2018 at 1:47 pm

    Obama didn’t close Guantanamo during his first term as promised. Choosing somehow, in the bargain, to protect the Bush/Cheney gang from investigation of wrong doing. Now the psychopathic Trump trumpets his intent to keep Guantanamo open and to stand up FOR torture in the bargain. Can we go any lower?

    Meanwhile our heroes who expose wrongdoing – Snowden, Assange, Manning, Binney, Drake and so many others – continue to remain at risk from the attacks of powerful wrongdoers in the corrupted institutions of government and their powerful allies in the MSM and even “top” academic institutions.

    The “National Security” mantra gets dragged in often to give faux cover to the wrongdoers as they try to keep their crimes hidden by attacking the messengers whose risk everything to inform the public what’s being done in our name and with our tax dollars.

    How very disturbing this all is.

  13. GEOFF TEAGUE
    February 4, 2018 at 3:52 am

    the tone of this article implies that this should not be happening and it delivers massive intrusion into our civil rights. well, when the masses wont get off their asses whaddya expect????????? just a new yorker observing the obvious!!!

  14. February 4, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Who ordered the steel beams from the World Trade Center towers shipped to China to be melted down before they could be examined as evidence? Has there been a bigger crime of this nature?

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