On learning that the NSA secretly collects data on the phone calls of millions of people suspected of no crime, many observers thought back to the Church Committee investigation and the decades of surveillance-state abuses that it chronicled. Was history repeating itself? The Obama Administration rejected the suggestion. In their telling, adequate checks and balances are in place to protect civil liberties.
Prominent experts on the history of U.S. surveillance abuses have now expressed their vehement disagreement. In recently filed federal-court documents, they argue that ongoing, bulk collection of phone data carried out under Section 215 of the Patriot Act is alarmingly similar to bygone, discredited surveillance programs.
Few Americans are in a better position to render that judgment.
One of the experts, journalist James Bamford, may know the NSA better than any outsider. In 1982, he published The Puzzle Palace, the first book ever written about the secretive agency. He has since published three more books on the NSA, and is widely regarded as a leading authority, in part because he's occasionally enjoyed unprecedented access to agency facilities and high-ranking personnel. Another expert, University of Georgia Professor of Political Science Loch Johnson, served as special assistant to the chair of the Church Committee and as staff director of the House Subcommittee on Intelligence Oversight. And the final expert, Peter Fenn, was chief of staff to Senator Frank Church and on the Senate Intelligence Committee staff.