Under the law that created the CIA in 1947, there was a bright line barring the agency from spying on Americans… partly over concerns about civil liberties, privacy and political abuse.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, there was widespread support for stepped up security even if it meant stepping on jealously-guarded constitutional protections.
Some worried: Would the government take its new powers too far? With recent disclosures, the answer may be — yes.
Today’s cover story examines, “The Surveillance State.”
Pete Hoekstra: They know who you’re talking to, they know your communications patterns. So whether you’re doing it through social media, or know through emails or through phone calls or these types of things, they know who you’re talking to.
Sharyl: Former Congressman Pete Hoekstra is describing the extent of government surveillance.
Pete Hoekstra: We use it to profile people who may be threats to the United States. But at the same time, they can profile you as to the kind of person you are, and the kind of people that you interact with.
Sharyl: Even if I’ve done nothing wrong?
Pete Hoekstra: Even if you’ve done nothing wrong.
Sharyl: Hoekstra helped usher in the modern surveillance state after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He supported the Patriot Act that greatly expanded the powers of U.S. intelligence agencies.
In 2004, he became Chairman of the House Intelligence committee.
Pete Hoekstra: I was called over to the White House and I met with Mike Hayden who, at that time, was the Director of the NSA and I met with the Vice President.
Sharyl: They read him in on a government practice that was unheard of, by the public: a secret program to gather “bulk” data on nearly every American.
Pete Hoekstra: We collect Americans who, you know, who are part of the system and through this huge dragnet that we have out there and this is what we do to make sure that their conversations, quote-unquote, are minimized.
Sharyl: The program was so secretive, that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was still publicly denying it in 2013.
Sen. Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
James Clapper: No, sir.
Sen. Wyden: It does not?
James Clapper: Not wittingly.
Sharyl: A month later, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the shocking extent to which the U.S. government had been spying on law abiding citizen including so-called “incidental” surveillance, without a court warrant, of Americans who simply communicated with a foreign target.
On that basis, the government has secretly recorded members of Congress, we’ve learned, including Jane Harmon speaking with pro-Israel lobbyists and Dennis Kucinich speaking with a Libyan official. Someone illegally leaked the conversations to the press.
Sharyl: Some people today may not realize that privacy of our citizens and controlling the government from doing these sorts of things is sort of a basic tenet in our society.
Elizabeth Goitien: It is. I mean, it’s right there in the Fourth Amendment.
Sharyl: Elizabeth Goitein leads the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice Policy group.
Elizabeth Goitein: Essentially every administration, starting from FDR up through Nixon had abused the surveillance authorities that were in their power in order to go after personal enemies, in order to go after political opponents, journalists, lobbyists, executive officials.
Sharyl: They had enemies lists.
Goitein: They had enemies lists; congressional staffers, disfavored minorities or political viewpoints.
Sharyl: But Goitein says the post 9/11 Surveillance State dwarfs anything imagined by J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director from 1935 to 1972, known for his covert acts against political opponents.
Exhibit one is a bombshell in a declassified document first reported in May by Circa News: In 2011, the government vastly expanded its surveillance powers to include U.S. citizens who merely mentioned a foreign target in “a single discrete communication.”
Sharyl: There was concern back then that government would ultimately abuse these tools. Do you think that’s happened?
Pete Hoekstra: I think it has. And I’ve admitted that.
Sharyl: In recent years, the government has also gotten caught monitoring journalists at Fox News, Associated Press, and, as I allege in a federal lawsuit, my computer while I worked at CBS News.
Also under President Obama, the government spied on multiple Congress members speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In 2014, the CIA even got caught spying on Senate Intelligence committee staffers, though CIA Director John Brennan had explicitly denied that. He later apologized.
Pete Hoekstra: It’s absolutely outrageous, and I think, you know, should have led for the removal of the people in the intelligence community who authorized that behavior, even if it went all the way to the Director of the CIA.
The Executive Branch cannot spy on Congress and they cannot spy on the American people.
Sharyl: But they are.
Pete Hoekstra: But they are.
Sharyl: With the recent presidential election came new possibilities for intelligence collection and abuses. Several revealed in just the past few weeks.
We’ve learned that in January 2016, a top secret Inspector General report found the National Security Agency violated the very laws designed to prevent abuse.
Throughout the election year, Obama officials searched through intelligence on U.S. citizens a record 30-thousand times… up from 9,500 in 2013.
Two weeks before the election, there was a secret hearing before the court overseeing government surveillance. National Security Agency officials confessed they’d violated privacy safeguards “with much greater frequency” than they’d admitted.
The judge accused them of “institutional lack of candor’” and said “this is a very serious Fourth Amendment issue.”
President Trump: You can talk all you want about Russia.
Sharyl: After Donald Trump was elected, he questioned the intelligence community’s claims that Russia interfered in U.S. elections and drew a warning from lead Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer.
Sen. Chuck Schumer: You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you.
Sharyl: Days later, President Obama took action to allow intelligence gathered by the National Security Agency to be shared more easily with other intel officials.
Soon, secret intercepts of conversations between Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russia’s Ambassador were leaked to the press and Flynn resigned.
President Trump: He didn’t tell the Vice President of the United States the facts and then he didn’t remember, and that’s just not acceptable to me.
Sharyl: While the media focused on Russia, some began asking who had been surveilled and why. Also, which Obama officials had asked to view the intel and “unmask” names of U.S. citizens normally hidden for privacy reasons.
In April, former Obama official Susan Rice admitted she unmasked and reviewed, but denied political spying.
Susan Rice: The effort to ask for the identity of an American citizen is necessary to understand the importance of an intelligence report, in some instances.
Sharyl: We now know that some political figures, including Susan Rice, have asked to see those names and read that intelligence in some cases. What thoughts does that evoke for you?
Hoekstra: It’s of great concern, because I, I think most of the time for these kinds of conversations you really don’t need to, you don’t need the unmasking to really figure it out.
In May, two more high-ranking Obama officials acknowledged they, too, reviewed secretly collected communications from political figures.
Sen. Charles Grassley: Did either of you ever review classified documents in which Mr. Trump, his associates or members of Congress had been unmasked?
James Clapper: Oh, Yes.
Sen. Grassley: You have? Can you give us details here in this-
Clapper: No, I can’t.
Sen. Grassley: Miss. Yates, have you?
Sally Yates: Yes, I have and no, I can’t give you details.
Sharyl: All concerned have said their actions were not politically motivated and were in the interest of national security.
It’s in this context that Congress will decide whether to renew government surveillance powers that expire at the end of the year. Hoekstra says significant new safeguards should be added.
Pete Hoekstra: I think in too many cases, Congress has become deferential to the intelligence community and to the Executive Branch, and they have to exert themselves.
Sharyl: Interestingly, erosions that you say occurred under Republicans continued under Democrats with President Obama. What does that tell you?
Elizabeth Goitein: It tells me that when Congress or the President invokes an emergency to expand surveillance authorities, those authorities have a way of becoming institutionalized.
The National Security Agency recently instituted some court-approved changes to prevent further violations of surveillance rules.