NY Times’ James Risen Not As Concerned With NSA Eavesdropping Under Clinton

The New York Times reporter whose National Security Agency eavesdropping article last Friday started a national debate about this issue didn’t appear as concerned with such espionage tactics when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

As reported by NewsBusters on Monday, an intricate international communications espionage network, codenamed Echelon, has been in existence for many years. Yet, a LexisNexis search of the word “Echelon” and the name “James Risen” produced only one result. The article, entitled “The Nation: Don’t Read This; If You Do, They May Have to Kill You” appeared in the Times on December 5, 1999. By contrast to last Friday’s article condemning NSA eavesdropping, this 1999 one by Risen almost praised it:

“No government organization has been better insulated from public scrutiny than the National Security Agency. Its very existence as America's premier eavesdropper and code-breaker was classified for decades, and the N.S.A. -- also known as "No Such Agency" -- has been able to keep the press and Congress largely at bay even as the Central Intelligence Agency has come under increased scrutiny in the wake of its cold war excesses and failures.”

Risen then addressed technological problems impeding the NSA’s ability to effectively eavesdrop: “At the same time, sophisticated, commercially available encryption technology is making it much tougher for the agency to sift through that mountain of intercepted communications and decipher the few messages that are actually important to the nation's security.”

Then, Risen addressed Echelon:

“But the N.S.A. has also been attacked for accumulating far more power than it needs. Its huge international communications collection and monitoring operation, called Echelon, which is conducted jointly with the agency's counterparts in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is criticized both in this country and overseas as an excessive intrusion into the private communications of Americans and their allies. As James Bamford, the author of the classic study of the agency, ‘The Puzzle Palace’ (Houghton Mifflin, 1982), recently noted in The Washington Post, the Echelon system relies on satellites and ground stations to intercept and then sort global communications, searching for specific names, words or phrases. The N.S.A.'s computers can then sort out intercepted communications that include names of drug dealers or political leaders or references to espionage or terrorist actions. The agency is prohibited from intercepting strictly domestic communications unless it gets a special court order.”

That last sentence is quite fascinating, and implies that the NSA at the time didn’t need a “special court order” to intercept non-domestic communications, a claim that the Bush administration is making today.

From what is available through LexisNexis, this is the only time Risen wrote about Echelon, including after CBS’ February 27, 2000 installment of “60 Minutes” dealing with this issue. This makes one wonder why Risen is so much more concerned about similar espionage activities being waged by the Bush administration in a post-9/11 world.

Below is the entire December 5, 1999 Risen article in question: 

December 5, 1999, Sunday, Late Edition - Final


SECTION: Section 4;  Page 5;  Column 1;  Week in Review Desk  

LENGTH: 859 words

HEADLINE: The Nation: Don't Read This;
If You Do, They May Have to Kill You

BYLINE:  By JAMES RISEN  

DATELINE: WASHINGTON

BODY:
NO government organization has been better insulated from public scrutiny than the National Security Agency. Its very existence as America's premier eavesdropper and code-breaker was classified for decades, and the N.S.A. -- also known as "No Such Agency" -- has been able to keep the press and Congress largely at bay even as the Central Intelligence Agency has come under increased scrutiny in the wake of its cold war excesses and failures.

But the N.S.A.'s isolation may be finally coming to an end. Critics on one side are now complaining that the N.S.A. has become obsolete in the Internet age, while critics on the other flank are attacking the agency for emerging from the cold war as a Big Brother without a cause, listening to everything around the globe for no good reason.

"N.S.A.'s problems are people and management problems," said one agency consultant. "They just haven't been willing to change the way they have always done things."

Some of its failings were on display last week, when the government announced that a Navy code expert had been charged with passing secrets to Russia five years ago while working at the N.S.A.

But N.S.A.'s problems go far deeper. In effect, the agency is under attack today both for incompetence and omnipotence. Its predicament suggests that its own obsession with secrecy has left it prey to conspiracy theorists, while at the same time making it difficult for the agency to seek the help it needs to fix its real problems.

Some current and former American intelligence officials argue that the agency has become overly bureaucratic and outdated, a cold war relic that is no longer able to lure the best young computer wizards to its headquarters at Fort Meade, Md. They warn that the N.S.A. is struggling to keep up in an era in which the daily volume of e-mail messages and cell phone calls threatens to overwhelm it.

At the same time, sophisticated, commercially available encryption technology is making it much tougher for the agency to sift through that mountain of intercepted communications and decipher the few messages that are actually important to the nation's security.

Still other critics complain that a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall the agency is still vacuuming telephone, fax, e-mail and other Internet traffic as if the Soviet Union had never collapsed. To them, the agency is not a cold war relic but a cold war beast in need of taming.

Created in 1952 to consolidate the nation's far-flung communications intelligence and code-breaking operations into one agency within the Defense Department, the N.S.A. quickly became the crown jewel of the intelligence community. Its code breakers enabled American presidents to regularly read the mail of America's enemies -- and its friends. The agency's high-tech collection efforts were so highly prized that it grew into the country's biggest intelligence agency.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Congress and the White House have reduced the N.S.A.'s budget. But those cutbacks have come just as the Internet has exploded, revolutionizing communications technology. The use of telephone and computer encryption is also certain to expand sharply over the coming years, as Washington moves to open up the export of advanced encryption software.

As Seymour M. Hersh wrote in the Dec. 6 New Yorker, the spread of such technology has already crippled the agency's collection efforts. In a speech last year, John Millis, the staff director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, warned that while the N.S.A. had traditionally been at the cutting edge of technology, "in the last four or five years technology has moved from being the friend to being the enemy" of the agency.

But the N.S.A. has also been attacked for accumulating far more power than it needs. Its huge international communications collection and monitoring operation, called Echelon, which is conducted jointly with the agency's counterparts in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is criticized both in this country and overseas as an excessive intrusion into the private communications of Americans and their allies. As James Bamford, the author of the classic study of the agency, "The Puzzle Palace" (Houghton Mifflin, 1982), recently noted in The Washington Post, the Echelon system relies on satellites and ground stations to intercept and then sort global communications, searching for specific names, words or phrases. The N.S.A.'s computers can then sort out intercepted communications that include names of drug dealers or political leaders or references to espionage or terrorist actions. The agency is prohibited from intercepting strictly domestic communications unless it gets a special court order.

The N.S.A., in a prepared statement, said that its new director, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, is trying to address the technological and management problems facing the agency by launching a restructuring program this winter that he calls "100 days of change." The program is designed to "provide the momentum for the workforce to shape the agency, so that it can thrive in the years to come."
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.