Skip to main content

Massive spying on Americans is outrageous

By Coleen Rowley, Special to CNN
June 11, 2013 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Coleen Rowley: Surveillance programs create huge profit for private contractors
  • Rowley: More importantly, stopping terrorists through mass data collection doesn't work
  • She says just look at how the Bush administration failed on 9/11 despite early warnings
  • Rowley: Secretive spying programs harm national security and threaten democracy

Editor's note: Coleen Rowley, a FBI special agent for almost 24 years, was legal counsel to the FBI Field Office in Minneapolis from 1990 to 2003. She wrote a whistle-blower memo in May 2002 and testified to the Senate Judiciary on some of the FBI's pre-9/11 failures. She writes and speaks about ethical decision-making and civil liberties issues.

(CNN) -- "Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that cannot bear discussion and publicity." -- Lord Acton

The recent disclosures about the National Security Agency's massive and aggressive spying on the world, including U.S. citizens, along with other scandals showing Associated Press and Fox News reporters targeted in "leak" investigations, should make us realize that John Poindexter's plan for "Total Information Awareness" never died: It merely went underground and changed its name.

When the TIA idea was first proposed by the Bush administration after 9/11, along with a "Big Brother" all-seeing eye logo, it was widely considered a crazy notion, resulting in an outcry. That data collection plan, which involved indiscriminate spying on Americans, was quickly squelched -- at least publicly.

The truth, however, was that it was reborn under dozens of massive data collection and surveillance programs within each of our 16 highly secretive intelligence agencies, under a variety of cute acronyms.

Coleen Rowley
Coleen Rowley

These programs falsely purport to get "novel intelligence from massive data." (In fact, NIMD is the actual, self-explanatory name of one such program). Few within the national intelligence community complained about the wrongfulness, illegality or ineffectiveness -- let alone the waste and fraud -- of programs that create billions in profit for private surveillance contractors, technology experts and intelligence operatives and analysts.

But there's no evidence the NIMD theory has worked. Researchers long ago concluded that the NIMD-type promise of detecting and accurately stopping terrorists through massive data collection was simply not possible.

Opinion: Edward Snowden is a hero

Think about how Bush administration officials defended themselves from not following up on the incredibly specific intelligence warnings urgently going to Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet and National Counterterrorism Director Richard Clark in the months leading up to 9/11. Their common response back then was something along the line of: intelligence is like a fire hose, and you can't get a sip from a fire hose. There was apparently too much for top officials to even read the key memos addressed to them.

Assange to Snowden: Go to Latin America
What is the NSA leaker's endgame?

But if intelligence was a fire hose before 9/11, it quickly became Niagara Falls.

And now, with so much data (almost all of it irrelevant) that has been sucked into government databases and computers, one might liken the "intelligence flow" to a tsunami, with analysts asked to find just the right drop of water. Good luck.

In fact, The Washington Post's well-researched series in 2010 on "Top Secret America" reported that the NSA was collecting and storing around 1.7 billion pieces of information every 24 hours, even back then.

To switch metaphors, it does not make it easier to find a needle in a haystack if you continue to add hay. No one has ever explained why it was left to fellow passengers or alert street vendors, not the "intelligence" agencies, to stop the last four major terrorist attacks or attempted attacks on U.S. soil.

When the Bush administration's illegal monitoring was revealed by The New York Times in December 2005, a cover-up of sorts ensued. By labeling it the "terrorist surveillance program," Bush and his closest intelligence officials scared Congress and the people into believing that the surveillance was something other than a dragnet -- that it was limited to terrorist suspects, or at least to foreign nationals, and did not encompass all Americans. Few believed at the time that such a colossal secret system could eventually be used against American news agencies and reporters, activists and other officials.

Fast forward to President Barack Obama's response to the recent confirmation about the extent of the NSA's "metadata" collection of our telephone and Internet information. Keep in mind that the NSA is just one of the 16 agencies involved in data gathering and storage.

Opinion: Your biggest secrets are up for grabs

A courageous person of conscience -- Edward Snowden -- has now openly confirmed it all but is already suffering official demonization because he felt it important for the wider public to know and debate the magnitude and reach of the U.S. government's secret monitoring. The disclosures have caused Obama and other officials to more or less admit that massive government surveillance erodes citizens' individual privacy, but they claim that it is a necessary trade-off in the quest for security. Omitted was proof that such a strategy even works.

The excessive secrecy and increasing compartmentalization in "top secret America" actually reduces information sharing, which the post 9/11 investigations concluded was the major failure and root cause that allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur. Some of us even wonder if the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented if WikiLeaks or a similar channel had existed to get out the serious threats and information that surfaced in the months beforehand but were ignored, unread or became blocked in the "fire hose."

Secretive spying programs actually harm national security. And arguably worse, they pose, as Snowden stated, "an existential threat to democracy." The Bill of Rights limits government prerogative by ensuring that a measure of evidence and proof are necessary before police can detain people or search their homes and other areas of privacy.

The threat to democracy lies not only in the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of due process, right against self-incrimination and coerced confessions and other rights that form the backbone of the criminal justice system, but also in eroding freedom of the press, seeing journalists and reporters as "aiding and abetting" the criminal telling of government secrets. Secrets, by the way, that shouldn't even be secret.

Few graphs climb as sharply upward as this one tracing the line from 6 million government documents classified "secret" in 1996 to 92 million secret in 2011. What will be the figure in 2013? Will we need someone such as Snowden to tell us? Has Thomas Jefferson's notion that the bedrock of democracy rests on an informed citizenry become as "quaint" as the Geneva Conventions?

The notion that we must choose between abiding by the Constitution and improving security is fundamentally false, as Obama noted when first campaigning for the presidency. But his recent response was a flip flop exploiting people's fear of terrorism to say he cannot ensure their "100% security" unless people give up their privacy and convenience to allow the massive NSA monitoring. A lot more than privacy and convenience is at stake.

What is at risk here is simply the rule of law, whose keystone is the concept of due process, as derived from the Magna Carta and enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Once due process goes, we can wave goodbye also to freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of assembly.

Opinion: Why we need government surveillance

It has happened before.

One need to only look to the operation of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s and '50s to recall a time when rights were suspended and to be accused meant to be convicted of a thought crime. Often considered the smartest man of the last century, Albert Einstein died with a nearly 2,000 page FBI file.

J. Edgar Hoover gathered secret information on anyone and everyone of consequence, which gave him power over some presidents. In the 1960s, the FBI's COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program) secretly monitored civil rights, anti-war and even feminist groups.

Hoover's "black bag jobs" against such public activists as Martin Luther King Jr., secret blackmailing attempts and nonjudicial "disruption" of these groups is what actually led to the Church Committee investigation of abuses and the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which the NSA has now effectively dismantled.

Who wants to go back to the good ole' HUAC-Hoover era?

I'm afraid that secrecy will inherently continue to degenerate everything and everybody it touches. Thank goodness for some persons of conscience such as Edward Snowden and for a little truth getting out!

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Coleen Rowley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT