Bush’s plan to do universal eavesdropping without a warrant is not only trashing American civil liberties. If my experience with past FBI snooping and compiling a file on me, the massive eavesdropping of President Bush is not only a constitutional outrage, it is also a formula for yet more blundering.
The new policy says it’s aimed at U.S. citizens who receive phone calls from abroad.
I hope President Bush’s agencies for eavesdropping on citizens’ phones to catch terrorists does better than my experience with an earlier snooping. Our terrorism fighters need to do better than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did with me. The snooping on me was merely idiotic. But the same behavior today could bring terrible things to our country. Osama bin Laden’s agents are not bumbling jokers.
Unlimited, warrentless eavesdropping on citizen phone calls on such a widespread basis is prone to errors, lapses, and deliberate and dangerous confusions. For one thing, the Osama and jihadist enemies know they are being listened to and that sets up a game of I-spy-on-you-and-you-spy-on-me-and-who-gets-fooled-first?
But even with good luck for our side, collected private conversations of such massive proportions is bound to have errors that at minimum ruin or harass innocent citizens. It dampens spontaneity in common or enjoyable conversation. It accumulates gargantuan masses of overheard words that invite naive or lazy conclusions. But worse, given the flippant attitude of the Bushies for constitutional and personal privacy, their penchant for calling disloyal those who disagree with his policies, it is open for selective retribution against loyal Americans who happen to think Bush’s errors and fantasies are themselves threats to national security.
The old experience in my case is not cited here because the results with me were earthshaking. They were not. They simply got everything wrong, and that caused the head of the FBI at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, to go on a nation-wide hunt to get some dirt on me. In my case, it was just stupid. But it did expose how big-time eavesdropping is prone to bad reporting of conversations and with the Bush people’s vulnerability to nonsense. Ahmad Chalabi, their Iraqi “expert” assuring Bush that when invading Iraq our troops would be greeted by roses. Some roses.
And Vice President Cheney’s multiple visits to CIA headquarters apparently to massage intelligence reports to justify the invasion. Chalabi’s roses and distorted intelligence had horrendous consequences for the United States. It not only has cost our military lives and crippling casualties, the killing and maiming of thousands of innocent Iraqi women and children in that dehumanizing term, “collateral damage.” But it has left Iraq , not with roses, but a seemingly endless civil war.
My experience was many years ago, long before 9/11. And the job on me was relatively simple-though it must have cost the taxpayers some real money. True, J. Edgar Hoover was a strange man who often valued publicity more than intelligent diligence. But, given the mistakes with the present agencies to catch pre-9/11 warnings, the White House letting all Saudis in the U.S. go home after 9/11, and the peculiar standards of President Bush on effeciient exercise of official duties, as in the tragic failures in the New Orleans catastrophe —“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job”— I’m not so sure that we’ve learned much since Hoover’s obsessions and idiosyncracies.
My experience was during the Nixon Administration’s burglaries, snooping, and maintaining a political enemies’ list. Nixon was a highly intelligent man with an unfortunate paranoid streak. I was an Assistant Managing editor for National News at the Washington Post, a newspaper for which Nixon harbored a neurotic hatred (lots of conservatives disliked the paper at the time, but most of them were conventional conservatives who thought the only proper news was doctrinaire conservatism).
The White House Nixonites were different. Nixon had a lifetime feeling that he was never really accepted by high status people (and, indeed, when he was President Eisenhower’s Vice President, it was observable by Washington correspondents that Ike was never warm with his Vice President). Besides, Nixon’s two chief aides, Ehrlichman and Haldeman, had been PR men and when they complained to me and others, it became clear that to them that any news departing from complimentary public relations boosting of their boss was judged — pardon the expression — “liberal bias.”
Knowing how many times I received complaints from the White House when the Post’s national staff unearthed official bumbling and aware that Nixon maintained an “enemies list” loaded with names of Washington correspondents, I was curious to see my private governmental status. Using the Freedom of Information Act, I asked for and received my FBI file. Like most released personal files, mine had whole sentences and paragraphs blanked out. I suspect that if a nun from the Little Sisters of the Poor asked for hers, she’d get some blanks in her report, too, (“Sister Clare mumbled the matins at dawn”). The mere presence of censored words and phrases imply dominant power by the wielder of the black-out pen, as well as concealment of sources..
I was not a Little Sister of the Poor. I had been a reporter and a Washington correspondent and editor for years, which meant reporting politics, among other things. I had covered a wide variety of people and events and my file included most of them, replete by the FBI blackouts. But what was not blacked out at first made me laugh out loud. But I stopped finding it funny when I realized the lunacies and blatant errors in my files. If they were typical of the spycatchers —- “subversives” was the term of art at the time— I feared for the security of the country.
Much of the report had to have come from reports of conversations at dinner parties where some of my conversation clearly was sent to the local agents. That in itself was unsettling. Could some social friends be false friends, or invited dinner guests made paranoid by the national witchhunts?. In my FOIA report, one volunteer FBI informant told the agency that I was “obsessed” with civil liberties and “was believed to belong to the American Civil Liberties Union.” That, at least, was true. I had done reporting on incidents of racial prejudice, cross-burnings and the like. And as long as I can remember I have been —- as George Bush’s father on television with a look of incredulous horror accused his opponent for the presidency, Michael Dukakis, of being – pause for emphasis – “a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union!”
Only by comparison does Bush 41 seem wiser than his son.
I still am a card-carrying member of the ACLU (I don’t actually carry it, but I have the current membership card somewhere.) But another part of my FBI file, again apparently from dinner party conversation or perhaps a public talk to some organization, was the reverse of what I had said.
That part of the official file said that at some dinner parties unnamed persons (identities blanked out) reported that “I had strongly defended the Ottoman Turks in their genocide of Armenians.”
That threw me.
Here, I need to insert some personal history. I was born in Anatolia, Turkey, where my father was a professor in an American college. My mother. A poet, and four older sisters also were born in Turkey. I, too, was born there, but it was during a massacre of Armenians by Turks, and when I was 11 days old, the family had to flee the massacre over frozen, snow-covered mountains. It was an ordeal described in many places, including the reports of the United States ambassador to Turkey, Hans Morgenthau, Jr. (and in my memoir, Double Vision.).
Thousands froze to death in that exodus. At one time, my father, carrying me heavily blanketed in his arms while he ran back and forth keeping my sisters together. At one point, he tried to rouse me and I did not respond and he assumed I had frozen to death. But it was no time to demoralize the struggling family with the news. My mother was riding her horse, Mozart, and when she fainted, she began to slip off the horse. My father dropped the bundle to catch her and when the bundle (me) hit the frozen ground, I let out a cry.
Miraculously, the whole family survived the week-long struggle through the snow and sub-freezing temperatures to the nearest friendly railhead. Two of my sisters suffered frozen toes, and within two weeks of our landing in the United States, my mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis, spent the next three years in sanatoriums, and died when I was three years old.
This is what my FBI file was referring to when it said I had strongly defended the Turks in their genocide of Armenians.
One last personal illustration of what unrestricted eavesdropping can do to accuracy and the pin-pointing of genuine dangers.
While I was bureau chief of the Washington Bureau of the Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin, a new publisher, inherited one of the better metropolitan papers in the country. The publisher was an admirer of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. He asked me to do a long piece on the heroism of Hoover on the occasion of Hoover’s 17th anniversary of taking over the FBI.
Every Washington correspondent I knew at the time, periodically received some off-the-wall story request from the home office and the nuttier requests all went to a bottom drawer of his desk and hoped the request would be forgotten. My bottom drawer had its share of absurd or petty requests that were received and ignored and luckily, most were forgotten. The Hoover one joined the stack in my bottom draw. But this time, the publisher was serious. My managing editor called me, privately agreed it was a silly idea, but said the publisher nagged him almost daily. “But what’s so special about a 17th anniversary?” The ME said, “Nothing. But do me a favor on this one.” So I did
I did my best to do an honest job. I found that Hoover back in 1924 inherited a disorganized and corrupt agency and, in fact, did a creditable job of reorganizing the agency into a more efficient crime-fighter. I also discovered that he had some idiosyncracies. He and his chief aide went to the race track just outside of Washington every day, but his chauffeur was ordered never to make a left turn. When a left was needed, his driver always went around the block — right- right-right and came out just as a single left turn would have. The reason? Once on a left turn, Hoover’s his car was in a collision and thereafter he forebade any more left turns.
I put in the celebrated crimes solved by his agency and famous hoods shot down. But I also put in an episode that made me a permanent enemy of the chief country’s federal investigator.
During President Roosevelt’s pre-World War II years he had to use the FBI for foreign investigations. Their inexperience in foreign societies convinced FDR that the country needed an agency specializing in foreign intelligence and spying. During World War II this was done by the ad hoc Office of Strategic Services (OSS) headed by an old spymaster, William “Wild Bill” Donovan. FDR asked Donovan to draw up a highly secret plan for a permanent postwar foreign intelligence service.
It was to be an “Eyes Only” report, meaning only the selected recipients -“eyes only” meant only the pre-designated persons could look at it, not their secretaries, their wives, their lovers, or their confessors could see it. The permitted four “eyes” were specified. One was for the President himself, one for the head of intelligence in the Department of Defense, one for J. Edgar Hoover, and one for Donovan himself. Donovan did his homework with what was to become the CIA. But Donovan was an old hand in government bureaucracy. He knew that keeping secrets was not part the genetic culture of Washington, the origin of the old saying, “The ship of state is the only vessel that leaks from the top.”
Knowing this and distrusting Hoover above all the recipients, Donovan each of the four copies in slightly different language. None of the differences changed the substance, but each had minor differences in sentence structure and punctuation.
He delivered the four copies to the designated recipients. As expected, a few days later, the Chicago Tribune , a paper then an unrelenting bitter enemy of President Roosevelt, ran a Page One headline declaring that FDR planned his private own network to spy on Americans. It quoted Donovan’s the secret plan verbatim. It was the language of J. Edgar Hoover’s copy. I put that in my paper’s requested profile of Hoover. Later, when out of general curiosity, I asked for my FBI file, it included a reproduction of my story describing Donovan’s trick that embarrassed Hoover. On the margin of that paragraph of my story, presumably in Hoover’s own hand, was a written notation, “Never give this man anything – H.” (The FBI liked publicity and often tried to be useful to reporters.) In addition, he had asked every FBI bureau in the country to look at files in their local police for any information about me, especially any arrests or embarrassing items. The dragnet seemed to come up empty. That made me feel as though I was living too orderly a life. When I finished reading my file, I was struck by two things. They spent a lot of my tax dollars for this idiocy. But more important, with all their information gathering power and a full national search, the Federal Bureau of Investigation got so much that was precisely the opposite of what was said. What if it was not a reverse of my conversation but the reverse of a transatlantic call on something of genuine importance to the security of the country?
Today, with masses of eavesdropped foreign-domestic phone calls, all of it intercepted and searched for key words that might reveal terroristic plans, what if errors like those in my much simpler case occurred? It could have profound consequences.
Like the miles of secretly recorded old-fashioned tapes of FBI phone tapping, the only practical use was to comb it for what was considered key words. Today, the spooks can record more massive quantities of phone and other communications, and inevitably will have to program their computers to stop only when their detect a key word considered significant in communications of terrorists. Some key words are obvious.
Osama bin Laden. Jihad. Explosive. Golden Gate Bridge. Chicago Tower. But has anyone produced an errorless computer?
Will a routine transaction on how many cases of wine from a vintner in Tuscany, Italy to a wholesaler in New York City have one of the parties, maybe with an accent, say “bill of lading” and the eavesdropper pick it up as “bin Laden.?”
Or a phone call from a fourth-grade teacher in Moscow, Idaho to her horse-training aunt in Palestine, Texas asking how her pure Arab is doing? Key words: Moscow, Palestine, Arab. Aha!
Ben Bagdikian’s latest book is The New Media Monopoly. Z’s Future