Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Abuse of Power

Salon.com uncovers evidence that the Bush administration’s spying on U.S. citizens was — and remains — far more widespread than previously thought.

The last several years have brought a parade of dark revelations about the George W. Bush administration, from the manipulation of intelligence to torture to extrajudicial spying inside the United States. But there are growing indications that these known abuses of power may only be the tip of the iceberg. Now, in the twilight of the Bush presidency, a movement is stirring in Washington for a sweeping new inquiry into White House malfeasance that would be modeled after the famous Church Committee congressional investigation of the 1970s.

While reporting on domestic surveillance under Bush, Salon obtained a detailed memo proposing such an inquiry, and spoke with several sources involved in recent discussions around it on Capitol Hill. The memo was written by a former senior member of the original Church Committee; the discussions have included aides to top House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, and until now have not been disclosed publicly.

Salon has also uncovered further indications of far-reaching and possibly illegal surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency inside the United States under President Bush. That includes the alleged use of a top-secret, sophisticated database system for monitoring people considered to be a threat to national security. It also includes signs of the NSA’s working closely with other U.S. government agencies to track financial transactions domestically as well as globally.

[…]

A prime area of inquiry for a sweeping new investigation would be the Bush administration’s alleged use of a top-secret database to guide its domestic surveillance. Dating back to the 1980s and known to government insiders as “Main Core,” the database reportedly collects and stores — without warrants or court orders — the names and detailed data of Americans considered to be threats to national security.

According to several former U.S. government officials with extensive knowledge of intelligence operations, Main Core in its current incarnation apparently contains a vast amount of personal data on Americans, including NSA intercepts of bank and credit card transactions and the results of surveillance efforts by the FBI, the CIA and other agencies. One former intelligence official described Main Core as “an emergency internal security database system” designed for use by the military in the event of a national catastrophe, a suspension of the Constitution or the imposition of martial law. Its name, he says, is derived from the fact that it contains “copies of the ‘main core’ or essence of each item of intelligence information on Americans produced by the FBI and the other agencies of the U.S. intelligence community.”

Some of the former U.S. officials interviewed, although they have no direct knowledge of the issue, said they believe that Main Core may have been used by the NSA to determine who to spy on in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Moreover, the NSA’s use of the database, they say, may have triggered the now-famous March 2004 confrontation between the White House and the Justice Department that nearly led Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI director William Mueller and other top Justice officials to resign en masse.

I think this goes a little beyond the realm of the Fourth Amendment — not that it matters to these people — and we’re into the place where the folks wearing the tin-foil hats might be on to something.