The NSA Has Always Been Spying on You

June 19, 2013 | Andy Cush

On June 5, the Guardian published a report based on a leak from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, detailing how the NSA surveils U.S. phone calls, collecting and analyzing cell phone metadata from Verizon. The following day, the Washington Post revealed PRSIM, a program that allowed the NSA to monitor electronic communications like emails, photos, and chat messages from the customers of virtually every major computer and internet company. We’ve been here before.

The scope and the depth of the NSA’s monitoring of domestic communications is worrying, but for anyone that’s been following the agency, it shouldn’t be surprising. Using the New York Times’ article archive, which contains digital copies of every article published by that paper since 1851, we’ve put together a story about how each aspect of the current scandal–the surveillance of U.S. citizens, the compliance of tech companies, the demonization of leakers–is part of a pattern that’s been repeating for decades, a pattern that couldn’t even be halted by federal legislation specifically designed to stop it.

CIA Panel Finds ‘Plainly Unlawful’ Acts That Improperly Invaded American Rights (June 10, 1975): Buried in an article about the Rockefeller commission, an investigation into the CIA’s unlawful monitoring of American activist groups, is the revelation that the agency monitored phone calls between U.S. citizens and Latin America in a drug trafficking case. “The project was done at the behest of the NSA,” a report is quoted as saying.

Colby Says NSA Tapped Phone Calls of Americans (August 6, 1975): Then-CIA director Thomas Colby tells a House committee that the N.S.A. sometimes taps international phone calls involving U.S. citizens, saying that American calls are “technically impossible” to filter out. According to the New York Times, it is the first time a U.S. intelligence official admits to listening in on American calls. Wisconsin Democratic Representative Les Aspin calls it “a very, very clear violation of the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution.”

National Security Agency Reported Eavesdropping on Most Private Cables (August 30, 1975): Much like the in the current scandal, in 1975, information about phone surveillance was quickly followed by a scoop about snooping on electronic communication. “Sources familiar with the operations” told the Times that the NSA monitors “virtually all cable, Telex, and other nontelephone communications leaving and entering the United States,” then uses computers to filter through the results. In yet another eerie parallel, the article mentions keywords that might set of the NSA’s detectors: “The computer could be programmed to record any message which contained the words oil, Saudi, or Mideast, and it would deliver messages with these subjects in them.”

Senate Unit Says Cable Companies Aided in Spying (November 7, 1975): A Senate committee reveals the name of PRISM’s mid-century ancestor–the perfectly old-timey “Operation Shamrock” –along with the fact that three cable companies, RCA Global, ITT Communications, and Western Union, cooperated with the NSA, handing over messages sent and received by Americans from the 1940s until the 1970s. The companies were assured by the Truman administration, under which the program was launched, that they would “suffer no criminal liability and no public exposure” for cooperating.

President Blocks Security Records Sought in House (Feb 24, 1976): Gerald Ford invokes executive privilege to deny Congress access to NSA records of cable monitoring, claiming the records were too sensitive to release to the congressional committee. “Upon review of the subpoenas,” Ford wrote, “I have concluded that the scope of the records sought is so extremely broad as to encompass records containing the most sensitive national security information, and the public interest requires that the records not be disclosed to the committee.”

“Tapping Computers” (April 3, 1976): In the early days of networking, several companies presciently move towards encrypting their computer-to-computer communications. According to the Times, The NSA and Bureau of Standards propose a code that is “strong enough to withstand commercial attempts to break it,” but “weak enough to yield to Government cryptanalysis.”

Senate Passes Bill to Bar Bugging in U.S. Without Court Order (April 20, 1977): The senate passes S. 1566, a bill introduced by Ted Kennedy that would go on to be signed by President Jimmy Carter and become the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which still regulates government surveillance today. FISA placed strict regulations on surveillance tactics used in the U.S., requiring that a federal court order be obtained before American communications are monitored in national security-related cases. George W. Bush would begin wiretapping American citizens without warrant decades later, in clear violation of FISA.

NSA; Slamming the Press, In Daylight (October 14, 1987): Just as government officials have recently slammed the Guardian and reporter Glenn Greenwald for publicizing the Snowden leaks, William E. Odom, NSA director under Ronald Reagan, criticized any media outlet that would publish classified information (even though no major leaks had happened at the time). “Often reporters know that a leaker has committed a criminal offense in providing information,” Odom said, “But they feel no responsibility for exacerbating the effects of that crime by serving as a conduit for broad and damaging dissemination of that information.”

A Public Battle Over Secret Codes (May 7, 1992): After news of PRISM broke, Apple released a statement detailing the extent to which it encrypts its proprietary iMessage and Facetime technologies, presumably in an effort to restore its customers faith in their own privacy. It wasn’t the first time the computing giant had publicly bucked against the NSA. In 1992, both Apple and Microsoft fought against the security’s regulation of encryption technology, arguing that they should control their own codes.

Bush Secretly Lifted Some Limits on Spying in U.S. After 9/11, Officials Say (December 15, 2005): It was only a matter of time before some president would undo the utopian, surveillance-free world promised by Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and FISA in 1978. And really, that president could only be George W. Bush. After 9/11, the president began allowing the N.S.A. to tap U.S. telephone calls without the court-ordered warrants FISA required. “This is really a sea change,” a national security source told the Times. “It’s almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches.” Bush’s spying was deemed unconstitutional in 2006, a decision that was appealed, then dismissed in 2007. Just as in Ford’s NSA scandal, it was argued that hearing the suit would endager state secrets.

Bush Account of a Leak’s Impact Has Support (December 20, 2005): As we’ve learned, where there’s a leak, there’s a government official to condemn it. This time, it was Bush, using an anecdote about Osama bin Laden to illustrate why information about his warantless wiretaps shouldn’t have been published.

Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led FBI to Dead Ends (January 17 2006): Like all good intrusions into American citizens’ privacy, Bush’s post-9/11 spying did very little to keep the country more secure. A Times report found that “virtually all” of the surveillance information the NSA gave to the FBI after the attacks led to “dead ends” and “innocent Americans.”

Attention in NSA Debate Turns to Telecom Industry (February 11, 2006): Predictably, the phone carriers were scrutinized for any possible cooperation with the Bush administration. AT&T cooperated; BellSouth, Qwest, and Verizon didn’t. Around this time, NewScientist published a report that the NSA was researching “the mass harvesting of information that people post about themselves on social networks,” back when Facebook was still exclusive to college students. The Times also published a scoop on NSA monitoring American banking transactions in 2006, a decision for which–surprise! —it encountered considerable criticism.

Bush Signs Law to Widen Reach for Wiretapping (August 6, 2007): In an effort to cover his own ass and expand the surveillance power of the federal government, Bush signs a law that allows surveillance of overseas calls and e-mails from the U.S. without a warrant, rendering the protections of 1978’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act moot and retroactively legalizing all of his 9/11 eavesdropping. It was this expansion of FISA that ushered in the current state of surveillance, allowing Barack Obama to truthfully assert that the NSA is within the law to collect and monitor Americans’ phone and metadata and online communications.

It’s not clear how this current round of NSA spying hysteria will play out–probably, some lawmaker will propose toothless legislation that nods towards privacy and everything will go away for a while. But if history has shown us anything, it will almost certainly be back.

(Illustration: Nate Cepis/ANIMALNewYork)