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Justifying America's 'big ear'

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I had to smile when President Bush was shown on television visiting the National Security Agency at Ft. Meade, Md., and telling the eavesdroppers that we're doing a good job on the antiterrorism front.

The existence of the multibillion dollar agency was kept quiet until its domestic surveillance programs were revealed in a Senate investigation in 1975. And when I tried to do an on-camera report for CBS standing outside the NSA gate, a US marine warned me I would be shot if I didn't go away. I didn't stay to test my First Amendment rights.

Testifying before a Senate committee in 1975, the NSA's director, General Lew Allen, acknowledged that at the request of other agencies, the NSA maintained watch lists with hundreds of names, many of them Americans whose phone calls were being monitored in an effort to establish foreign connections to antiwar dissidents. There were also suspected drug traffickers and potential assassins on these lists.

Out of that Senate investigation came the conclusion that there was good reason for some of the intercepts, but that there had to be some kind of judicial control to prevent breaches of civil liberties. And from that conclusion was born the 1978 act called FISA - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA established a secret court in charge of issuing warrants for wiretaps when requested. The court has refused very few applications and the law allows, when necessary, for surveillance to begin before the warrant has been issued.


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