NSA Scandal: What It Would Take to Stop the Spying

Lessons from the 1970s


A year after Richard Nixon had been forced out of office, it was clear that the Watergate scandal hadn't merely brought down a president. It had uncovered a shadowy side of the state where officials and their henchmen had been operating lawlessly for decades, and it had swept a set of reformers into Congress who were eager to bring those miscreants to heel. For a moment in the middle of the 1970s, a substantial section of the legislature would devote itself to exposing executive-branch misdeeds and to preventing such crimes from recurring.

America hasn't really seen a moment like that again. Oh, we've had plenty of scandals, and sometimes they've ripped back a part of the curtain that conceals the covert state from the citizens. That happened after the Iran-contra story erupted in 1986, revealing that Reagan officials had secretly sold weapons to Iran and channeled some of the profits to the contra rebels in Nicaragua. And there were congressional investigations in the 1990s that shined some light on the underside of the federal police apparatus. But there was nothing really comparable to the '70s, when a wave of suspicion swept across the political spectrum and when substantial change briefly seemed possible. In 2013, as new stories of misbehavior at the National Security Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, and other arms of the government hit the headlines, it's worthwhile to consider why exactly that moment has been so hard to recapture, and what it would take to recreate that post-Nixon spirit of reform.

The exposés of the '70s actually began before Watergate. As the Vietnam War wore on and domestic politics grew more bitter and violent, more critical coverage of the federal government began to appear in the mainstream media. Particularly notable were two stories that appeared in 1971. One was the leak of the Pentagon Papers, a report revealing that officials had lied repeatedly about what had been happening in Vietnam. The other one followed a break-in at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's office in Media, Pennsylvania, where a group of activists made off with more than a thousand documents detailing the agency's attempts to infiltrate and undermine protest movements. The FBI's program, known as COINTELPRO, was subsequently discussed in papers across the nation.

But the real shift took off after five burglars were arrested at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington in 1972. Over the next two years a chain of evidence would emerge that linked their illegal activity to Nixon, and that exposed a wide range of additional wrongdoing in the process. Nixon's operatives, we learned, had sabotaged the campaigns of the candidates believed to have the best chance of unseating their boss in the 1972 election. After the authorities started looking into the Watergate break-in, they had done their best to undermine that investigation too. When the military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, Nixon's men had burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, looking for information that could be used against the whistleblower. Nixon staffers had also assembled a list of the president's political foes, aiming—as White House Counsel John Dean explained it in a confidential memo—to "use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies." Within the IRS, a group called the Special Service Staff had regularly harassed people for political purposes. And on top of all that, some of the Watergate conspirators had seriously considered a plan to assassinate the newspaper columnist Jack Anderson.

After Nixon left office and the post-Watergate Congress came to power, the investigations cast a wider net. The Idaho Democrat Frank Church chaired a Senate committee that probed a host of executive-branch abuses, including COINTELPRO, CIA assassination plots, politically motivated IRS audits, a federal effort to intercept and read Americans' mail, the "surreptitious administration" of LSD "to unwitting nonvolunteer subjects," and an enormous surveillance program at the National Security Agency, which had been illegally monitoring citizens' phone calls and telegrams. A similar committee in the House, chaired by the New York Democrat Otis Pike, took a hard look at the CIA's budget secrecy and its spotty record in foreseeing foreign crises. As one disquieting story after another surfaced, mainstream Americans increasingly adopted the sorts of suspicions that just a few years earlier had largely been limited to the counterculture and the New Left. (An underground paper in Atlanta greeted the Nixon scandals with the headline "Watergate: Excuse Us for Bragging But We Told You So!")

Crucially, this disillusionment wasn't limited to liberals. The center was shaken, as the FBI and CIA's favorability ratings went into free fall. And while much of the right reacted to the revelations by defending the embattled national security agencies, Republicans also delighted in digging out dirty deeds by earlier administrations and throwing them back in the Democrats' faces. One conservative book of the era, Victor Lasky's It Didn't Start with Watergate, included a spirited recital of ugly facts about previous presidents: how Franklin Roosevelt used the FBI to spy on the critics of his foreign policy; how Harry Truman owed his career to Tom Pendergast's corrupt, vote-stealing political machine; how John and Bobby Kennedy steamrolled civil liberties in their pursuit of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa; how Lyndon Johnson used the CIA, including future Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt, to spy on Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign.

While those stories were true, Lasky unfortunately added some more dubious allegations to the mix as well. He was trying to vindicate Nixon, not to aid Frank Church from the right—something similar to the Obama fans today who think "Bush did it too" constitutes a defense. But in the context of the '70s, the effect of a Lasky-style counterblast wasn't necessarily to numb the sting of the accusations. It could as easily lead you to some positions taken by Noam Chomsky and other radicals of the left: that political repression had been a bipartisan project, that Nixon's troubles began because he directed that repression at powerful people instead of outsiders, that with Nixon out of office we would soon be back to business as usual. Chomsky acknowledged the convergence when he commented that Kennedy and Johnson's illicit FBI operations were "incomparably more serious than anything charged in the Congressional Articles of Impeachment" against Nixon, and that Nixon's defenders therefore "have a case." Lasky, in turn, quoted Chomsky's words in his book.

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, had a hard time limiting their damage to Republicans. Frank Church entered his investigations believing that the CIA had been a "rogue elephant" acting on its own, but it soon became clear that presidents of both parties were implicated in the agency's misbehavior. And while FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was an independent center of power, that doesn't mean he was a solo show: When he wiretapped Martin Luther King, to give just one infamous example, the Kennedy brothers signed off on the surveillance. The cloud of suspicion crossed partisan lines, enveloping the entire establishment.

Iran-contra didn't have that kind of effect. Yes, many Republicans objected to the White House's dealings with Tehran, and even some supporters of the contras were upset that the rebels received aid in a way that violated the law. Nonetheless, it didn't take long for a general GOP line to take hold in which the only major scandal related to Iran-contra was the amount of money the special prosecutor spent investigating it. Elements of those Reagan-era suspicions did eventually leak into the grassroots right: Those strange rumors about FEMA concentration camps that started circulating among the militias in the 1990s, for example, were descended from an ancillary Iran-contra story. (One of the scandal's central figures, Lt. Col. Oliver North, had helped create a creepy readiness exercise that involved the imposition of martial rule during a public emergency.) But that was a delayed effect, and in any event it wasn't a mainstream conservative concern.

In the '90s, similarly, congressional investigations of the Ruby Ridge and Waco standoffs didn't draw as much sympathetic attention from Democrats as they did from Republicans. Genuine civil libertarians of the left were certainly horrified by the FBI and ATF's behavior. But the hearings were widely perceived as a partisan affair, a cousin to the Republicans' investigations of Bill and Hillary Clinton's real estate dealings in Arkansas.

Is there a chance that this time we'll escape that trap? One glimmer of hope lies in Washington's nascent civil liberties caucus, an alliance of libertarian-leaning Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Justin Amash with ACLU-ish Democrats such as Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Jared Polis. If that informal coalition can hang together, it may be able to raise a transpartisan challenge to the national security state and its defenders in both big parties. And if—if—that conflict sets the narrative, scrambling the usual partisan lines, it will be harder to channel the current debates into yet another Red/Blue poo-throwing match.

But there would still be other barriers to serious change. The cross-party civil liberties alliance is small, after all, and Barack Obama is in a stronger political position today than Gerald Ford was in 1975. And even in the '70s, the reforms that ultimately were enacted didn't turn out to have many teeth. Just a decade after COINTELPRO was officially ended, the FBI was using some of the same old tactics against the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador: tapping their phones, intercepting their mail, possibly burglarizing their offices. Iran-contra itself made it clear that the post-Watergate probes didn't end illicit operations abroad. And while a law was passed in 1978 to rein in the NSA, the body it created as a check on the agency—the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—hasn't exactly been a watchdog.

The anthropologist Nicholas Dirks has described public scandals as "ritual moments in which the sacrifice of the reputation of one or more individuals allows many more to continue their scandalous ways, if perhaps with minimal safeguards and protocols that are meant to ensure that the terrible excesses of the past will not occur again." That's the greatest challenge for anyone trying to transform the system: how to ensure you've accomplished more than a political ritual. We don't just need to recreate that '70s spirit of reform. We need to surpass it.