Sunday, April 19, 2009

Wiretapped Galore

American Scofflaw

This week the New York Times revealed that the National Security Agency has continued spying on Americans well into the Obama era, with government officials listening in on phone conversations and monitoring e-mails on a massive scale.

Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau -- who broke the story of the Bush administration's domestic spying program in December 2004 -- reported that "in recent months," the NSA has engaged in an "overcollection" of domestic communication, far exceeding the already broad legal limits Congress established when it passed legislation to legalize the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program and granting immunity for the telecoms that enabled it.

The same article reveals that in 2005 or 2006, the NSA attempted to wiretap an unidentified member of Congress, lending further credence to speculation earlier this year by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., that he might have been spied on.

For many who have followed the long political saga that saw warrantless wiretapping revealed, debated and ultimately legalized at the hands of Congress, this report comes as no surprise.

"Everyone knew that the FISA bill, which congressional Democrats passed -- and which George Bush and Dick Cheney celebrated -- would enable these surveillance abuses," Glenn Greenwald wrote after the story broke.

Nevertheless, for many people it may come as a shock that nearly 4 1/2 years after the illegal program was uncovered, not only has the government continued to spy on Americans with total impunity, most of the details of Bush's warrantless wiretapping scheme remain a mystery.

"What really concerns me is that we still don't know the truth," Thomas Tamm, a former FBI official told me. "We do not know what they did."

Tamm should know. He is the person who blew the whistle on the NSA spying program, a former employee of the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review, a highly sensitive unit of the Justice Department. He remained anonymous for years, until his identity was revealed in a front-page story by Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff late last year.

The article described how Tamm, a veteran employee of the FBI, came across proof that the U.S. government had been unlawfully eavesdropping on Americans by intercepting domestic communications.

"The idea of lawlessness at the Justice Department angered him," Isikoff wrote. After many sleepless nights and frustrating conversations with his superiors -- "supervisors told him to drop the subject" -- he decided he could no longer keep the abuse to himself.

Finally, one day during his lunch hour, Tamm ducked into a subway station near the U.S. District Courthouse on Pennsylvania Avenue. He headed for a pair of adjoining pay phones partially concealed by large, illuminated Metro maps. Tamm had been eyeing the phone booths on his way to work in the morning. Now, as he slipped through the parade of midday subway riders, his heart was pounding, his body trembling. Tamm felt like a spy. After looking around to make sure nobody was watching, he picked up a phone and called the New York Times.

What Tamm revealed would not be reported for a year-and-a-half, when Risen and Litchblau published their now-famous front page story. They went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Meanwhile, Tamm "has not fared as well."

"The FBI has pursued him relentlessly for the past 2 1/2 years," Isikoff wrote. "Agents have raided his house, hauled away personal possessions and grilled his wife, a teenage daughter and a grown son. More recently, they've been questioning Tamm's friends and associates about nearly every aspect of his life.

"Tamm has resisted pressure to plead to a felony for divulging classified information. But he is living under a pall, never sure if, or when, federal agents might arrest him."

Tamm remains in a sort of legal limbo, with the Department of Justice informing him that no decision on whether to prosecute him would be made until Barack Obama took office. Four months into Obama's term, however, Tamm has not heard anything.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has blocked efforts by civil-liberties organizations to hold accountable those who unlawfully spied on Americans, even as more details have emerged revealing the broad targets of the NSA program, which included journalists and even members of Congress.

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