Established as an arm of the Department of Defense following Pearl Harbor, with the primary purpose of preventing another surprise assault, the NSA suffered a series of humiliations in the post-Cold War years. Caught offguard by an escalating series of terrorist attacks—the first World Trade Center bombing, the blowing up of US embassies in East Africa, the attack on the USS Colein Yemen, and finally the devastation of 9/11—some began questioning the agency’s very reason for being. In response, the NSA has quietly been reborn. And while there is little indication that its actual effectiveness has improved—after all, despite numerous pieces of evidence and intelligence-gathering opportunities, it missed the near-disastrous attempted attacks by the underwear bomber on a flight to Detroit in 2009 and by the car bomber in Times Square in 2010—there is no doubt that it has transformed itself into the largest, most covert, and potentially most intrusive intelligence agency ever created.
In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net. And, of course, it’s all being done in secret. To those on the inside, the old adage that NSA stands for Never Say Anything applies more than ever.
And yet—by issuing rules on how and when it would allow military arrests, the administration sure is leaving the impression that it believes the authority exists.
I don’t know if the president’s rules are airtight, but they are good enough to have outraged Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte. They have accused the White House of undermining the new law–making clear, if it wasn’t already, that they think the NDAA broadened military power on American soil. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Senator Graham even said “The homeland is part of the battlefield. I want to make sure we have a legal system that understands the difference between fighting a crime and fighting a war.”
It’s easy to believe that President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, Defense Secretary Panetta and National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon will prevent the military from operating as a police force (something the founders of this nation abhorred).
But I shudder to think what might have happened if President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had been handed that power. The rules the White House issued the other day can be revised or revoked by any future president. All of the Republican candidates, except Ron Paul, have made clear that they consider civil liberties secondary to security.
The liberal/libertarian uproar over the signing of the NDAA was completely justified, and critics of the President such as Glenn Greenwald on the issue of the continuation of Bush era “War on Terror” erosion of civil liberties are legitimate and fair. However the prospect of another neocon administration with these powers to wage endless war against an amorphous tactic instead of a nation state, including on domestic soil against American citizens, is a terrifying Orwellian vision. Obama has paid lip service to ending the war on terror preferring to focus his rhetoric on Al Qaeda, but ideally in a second term he would no longer feel the need to protect his flank on reelection with such a robust militaristic stance. Certainly Romney will have a difficult time making a case against Obama on foreign policy. His charges of apology and leading from behind carry little weight with Osama bin Laden’s corpse at the bottom of the ocean.
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