How a 30-year-old lawyer exposed NSA mass surveillance of Americans—in 1975

The NSA at night—always watching.
NSA

US intelligence agencies have sprung so many leaks over the last few years—black sites, rendition, drone strikes, secret fiber taps, dragnet phone record surveillance, Internet metadata collection, PRISM, etc, etc—that it can be difficult to remember just how truly difficult operations like the NSA have been to penetrate historically. Critics today charge that the US surveillance state has become a self-perpetuating, insular leviathan that essentially makes its own rules under minimal oversight. Back in 1975, however, the situation was likely even worse. The NSA literally “never before had an oversight relationship with the Congress.” Creating that relationship fell to an unlikely man: 30 year old lawyer L. Britt Snider, who knew almost nothing about foreign intelligence.

Snider was offered a staff position on the Church Committee, set up by Congress in 1975 to function as a sort of Watergate-style inquiry. This initiative focused on CIA subversion of foreign governments and spying on American citizens, recently revealed in the New York Times by noted investigative reporter Seymour Hersch. Congressional “oversight” of intelligence agencies was, at the time, nearly useless, as the Senate’s official history of the Church Committee notes:

In 1973, CIA Director James Schlesinger told Senate Armed Services Chairman John Stennis that he wished to brief him on a major upcoming operation. “No, no my boy,” responded Senator Stennis. “Don’t tell me. Just go ahead and do it, but I don’t want to know.” Similarly, when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J.W. Fulbright was told of the CIA subversion of the Allende government in Chile, he responded, “I don’t approve of intervention in other people’s elections, but it has been a long-continued practice.”

The committee was initially given nine months and 150 staffers to conduct its work. Snider was tasked with expanding the committee’s inquiry to the NSA, which was so opaque that no one in Congress could even come up with an org chart for the Fort Meade-based operation. Years later, Snider became the CIA’s inspector general. In late 1999 he wrote up his memories of that early NSA investigation and how it helped to reveal a massive program of NSA spying on telegrams—including those sent by US citizens. It turned out that the telegram companies had secretly agreed to the scheme out of a sense of “patriotic duty.” Sounds a bit like the NSA of today, no?

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