The Three Big Lies: How The Federal Government Kept Its Post-9/11 Spying On Americans A Secret

from the three-big-lies dept

Last night, the first episode of Frontline’s United States of Secrets aired, going deep into the history of “The Program,” which is what the Bush (really Cheney) White House referred to the NSA program to spy on Americans based on incredibly shaky legal theories — theories that were locked in a safe in Michael Hayden’s office at the NSA, which almost no one was allowed to see. If you want additional background or summaries of the episode, Monday night’s Fresh Air was great, including interviews with both the director of the program as well as Bill Binney and Kirk Wiebe — two NSA whistleblowers (who we’ve mentioned before) who had their lives turned upside down due to totally bogus FBI raids, which were clearly a response to their whistleblowing activities. Another great summary comes from PRI’s The World.

Either way, the thing that stands out to me is how the administration tried, desperately to stop anyone from revealing “The Program” with three big lies, which are discussed in all three of the links above. Here’s the short summary of what happened any time anyone sought to raise issues about the legality of “The Program”:

  • It’s completely legal and has been judged as such (though don’t ask why)
  • It’s “unbelievably effective.” You wouldn’t believe the threats we’re stopping — and that’s why we can’t talk about it.
  • If you reveal it, hundreds of thousands of Americans may die in a future attack — and the blood will be on your hands if you reveal and/or stop this program.

Of course, at this point, we now know that basically all three of those things are untrue. The “legality” was from a (still secret) memo from Cheney’s lawyer David Addington that was kept almost totally secret. Some of the people who have seen it (including Jack Goldsmith at the OLC), apparently found that the legal reasoning was insanely weak, which may be part of the reason it was kept secret. It also notes, as has been discussed here in the past, that eventually the DOJ figured out a way to get the FISA Court’s Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to issue a very questionable ruling effectively authorizing the program.

As for the “it’s working,” we’ve seen recently what a huge and incredible lie that was. Similarly, while the NSA and its defenders love to throw around the idea that if anyone reveals anything “blood will be on your hands,” that threat is always issued when whistleblowing happens, and it’s always a massive exaggeration.

Either way, those three big lies were effective in scaring people off from doing anything about the program — including Bill Keller at the NY Times, who spiked James Risen’s big story about the warrantless wiretapping (a part of the larger program) for over a year (well past the 2004 Presidential election). And, of course, since the program became known finally when Risen was getting ready to publish a book about it (and thus Keller felt he couldn’t sit on the story any longer), those “hundreds of thousands of deaths” were (once again) proven to be nothing but bogus FUD.

Of course, in the past year, Ed Snowden has revealed many more details of The Program and what it later turned into, and thus provided even more evidence that the three claims were just ridiculous lies all along. And yet, for over a decade now, those three big lies have been at the heart of the NSA’s program to spy on Americans.

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Comments on “The Three Big Lies: How The Federal Government Kept Its Post-9/11 Spying On Americans A Secret”

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27 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

It is interesting. The more I see our freedoms destroyed by the government, the more I believe Bin Laden’s plan to destroy America was successful. His attack while serious was only one of the very few terroristic events in the USA. That event has caused our government regulators to overreact well beyond the actual threat. It is slowly destroying our economy and freedom. Either Bin Laden was either an evil genius or just had a lucky break for his grim plan. Either way, I have come to be far more fearful of our government they any terrorist attack.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It wasn’t a “lucky break”. It was the plan all along. Taking out a few airplanes and a couple of buildings and a few thousand people was a mere pinprick: completely unimportant and utterly negligible. It no more posed an existential threat to the United States than a single ant does to my house. BUT…the reaction it provoked, the panic, the fear, the cowardice, the something-must-be-done-let’s-do-anything mindset, has led us to where we are today.

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves. — Abraham Lincoln

AricTheRed says:

Absolutly unbelieveable!

“It’s “unbelievably effective.” You wouldn’t believe the threats we’re stopping — and that’s why we can’t talk about it.”

-Because if we told you about the YOU we’re stopping, you’d be found not guilty when the court found out, how we found out and told the prosecutor to jam you up.

Anonymous Coward says:

I want 10 of the enemy for every one of ours, but lets be realistic.

We have sent 6000 to their deaths
We have directly and indirectly caused the deaths of millions in multiple countries
We have returned home over 100,000 severely hurt solders
We have destroyed our reputation around the planet
We have destroyed our constitution
We have created far more terrorists than existed prior to 9/11
We have damaged the future of millions of Americans
We have put monsters in charge of our government and its agencies
We have thrown away what it meant to be an American to get revenge for the deaths of 3000.

In comparison:
-over 1/2 million die of cancer each year in the US
-approx 30,000 die each year in the US in car accidents
-approx 38,000 die each year of suicide in the US

Were these people not worth as much to our government as the 3000 in the towers?

Our leaders are absolute failures and need to be removed from power, not just talked to.

pegr (profile) says:

Really doesn't make sense

The intelligence community should know, better than anyone else, that secrets ALWAYS become public. The whole concept with encryption and OpSec is not to keep your secrets forever, but to keep your secrets long enough to be effective. The Nazis put a lot of faith in their Enigma machine back in WWII. Now school children are decoding actual encrypted Nazi military communications from that time with papercraft Enigma machines. Secrets cannot be kept forever, period.

Anonymous Coward says:

While it reinforces vindication for Snowden’s disclosures about domestic spying, his and Greenwald’s additional disclosures surrounding tactics applied to foreign countries really taint the sheen of altruism. Had the disclosure been limited to the “Program” as it was with other employees who attempted to whistle blow, this would have remained a selfless act. It has instead evolved into theater fueled by Snowden’s recklessly wide information heist and Greenwald’s veritable giddiness over opportunities to command attention, with the continued consequence of invalidating years and decades of developments that enabled insight into foreign countries, all of whom attempt the same towards us.

sorrykb (profile) says:

"Frontline" does it again

All I want is nice quiet evening distracting myself with something mindless and uncomplicated, but while channel-surfing I happen upon PBS, and I can’t stop watching, even though it’s depressing and infuriating and I keep wanting to throw things at Hayden every time he’s on screen.

Damn you, Frontline. And thank you, too, I guess. grr.

P.S. The Frontline website (linked in the article) has some good additional reading and links, including a guide to the major news stories revealing the NSA abuses as well as government reports going back to 2004.

fjpoblam (profile) says:

Re: "Frontline" does it again

While channel surfing, we stumbled upon the season finale of Person of Interest, with the Machine that surveiled us all and prevented 54 terrorist attacks. At the end, its evil twin Machine was awakened to surveil us all: the evil twin, named Samaritan. With the last line, from the villain addressing Samaritan, ?We await your orders.? /sarcasm

Zonker says:

Re: Congress

Which is precisely why his party is so furious that they lost control of the White House to the other party, twice, and is so desperate to do whatever it takes to get it back. This includes stonewalling any proposal made by the other party or even opposing their own ideas if the other party decides to adopt them.

Neither party represents their constituents (the people) anymore, they only ever represent their own party and whoever pays enough to materially support them. We would be a lot better off if we could drop the political party system, the left vs right ideology, the us vs them mentality, remove money from politics and work together to build a better nation.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Congress

The trouble with banning parties is the tendency for people to gravitate towards those who share their values. That is why there are caucuses in the Houses. Getting rid of official political parties would create lots of unofficial ones, many of which would continue to vote along old ideological lines.

Meanwhile, political players would continue to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt among the people and sooner or later we’d be back to where we started, but with more targets to shoot at. The call to arms would still be along Red/Blue lines, though. People like simplicity, after all.

stencil says:

John Ashcroft, an unlikely hero

Even though I have no love for John Ashcroft, he partially redeemed himself by refusing to authorize domestic spying by the NSA and Bush Administration, even in the face of a bed-side ambush while he was disoriented and near death suffering from acute pancreatitis. I didn’t know that before the program; I do now. Perhaps won’t freeze in the lowest rung of Dante’s Inferno.

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