Imagine this: A super-secret government organization is caught eavesdropping on countless thousands of conversations going in and out of the country. Outraged, Senators demand hearings into the project.Last month? Nope. Last century, thirty years back."Decades before 9/11, and the subsequent Bush order that directed the NSA to eavesdrop on... U.S. citizens... they did the same thing with telegrams," Bruce Schneier notes. "It was called Project Shamrock, and anyone who thinks this is new legal and technological terrain should read up on that program."One of the big legal reforms to come out of Shamrock was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which set up the series of courts that the Bush Administration is now circumventing with its current eavesdropping effort.A lot of people are trying to say that it's a different world today, and that eavesdropping on a massive scale is not covered under the FISA statute, because it just wasn't possible or anticipated back then. That's a lie. Project Shamrock began in the 1950s, and ran for about twenty years. It too had a massive program to eavesdrop on all international telegram communications, including communications to and from American citizens. It too was to counter a terrorist threat inside the United States. It too was secret, and illegal. It is exactly, by name, the sort of program that the FISA process was supposed to get under control.UPDATE 12:41 PST: Check out this WaPo op-ed, on the difference between World War II's eavesdropping efforts and today's.
The difference between Bletchley Park [the UK's codebreaking center in the 40's] and Crypto City [the NSA HQ] has as much to do with the very different nature of their tasks as with the way they are viewed. By today's standards, the mission at Bletchley Park was well-defined. The targets of the surveillance were clear: the German high command and intelligence service. The signals collectors had a good fix on what communications to monitor. The greatest challenge lay in breaking the extremely complex Enigma code.By contrast, the NSA conducts broad-based surveillance indiscriminately over communications lines that few bad guys even use any longer. "Big Noddy," as those in the know call the NSA's vast "Ear in the Sky," has capabilities that dwarf the Bletchley Park World War II enterprise, but it isn't picking up much because the smartest terrorist groups have long since stopped talking about their plans over cell phones or land lines -- or to the extent they do, it's probably to plant disinformation. Today the challenge isn't decoding an intercepted message from a known enemy; instead it's figuring out what is and isn't a message and who the enemy is.(Big ups: HLS Watch)