By James Bamford
(Reuters) - "God we trust," goes an old National Security Agency joke. "All others we monitor.
First, the Guardian reported details on a domestic telephone dragnet in which Verizon was forced to give the NSA details about all domestic, and even local, telephone calls. Then the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed another massive NSA surveillance program, called Prism, that required the country's major Internet companies to secretly pass along data including email, photos, videos, chat services, file transfers, stored data, log-ins and video conferencing.
While the Obama administration and Senate intelligence committee members defend the spying as crucial in its fight against terrorism, this is only the latest chapter in nearly a century of pressure on telecommunications companies to secretly cooperate with NSA and its predecessors. But as stunning technology advances allow more and more personal information to pass across those links, the dangers of the United States turning into a secret surveillance state increase exponentially.
The NSA was so flooded with billions of dollars from post-September 11, 2001 budget increases that it went on a building spree and also expanded its eavesdropping capabilities enormously. Secret rooms were built in giant telecom facilities, such as AT&T's 10-story "switch" in San Francisco. There, mirror copies of incoming data and telephone cables are routed into rooms filled with special hardware and software to filter out email and phone calls for transmission to NSA for analysis.
New spy satellites were launched and new listening posts were built - such as the recently opened operations center near Augusta, Ga. Designed to hold more than 4,000 earphone-clad eavesdroppers, it is the largest electronic spy base in the world.
Meanwhile, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where top-secret work was done on the atomic bomb during World War II, the NSA is secretly building the world's fastest and most powerful computer. Designed to run at exaflop speed, executing a million trillion operations per second, it will be able to sift through enormous quantities of data - for example, all the phone numbers dialed in the United States every day.
Today the NSA is the world's largest spy organization, encompassing tens of thousands of employees and occupying a city-size headquarters complex on Fort Meade in Maryland. But in 1920, its earliest predecessor, known as the Black Chamber, fit into a slim townhouse on Manhattan's East 37th Street.
World War One had recently ended, along with official censorship, and the Radio Communication Act of 1912 was again in effect. This legislation guaranteed the secrecy of electronic communications and meted out harsh penalties for any telegraph company employee who divulged the contents of a message. To the Black Chamber, however, the bill represented a large obstacle to be overcome—illegally, if necessary.
So the Black Chamber chief, Herbert O. Yardley, and his boss in Washington, General Marlborough Churchill, head of the Military Intelligence Division, paid a visit to 195 Broadway in downtown Manhattan, headquarters of Western Union. This was the nation's largest telegram company - the email of that day.
The two government officials took the elevator to the 24th floor for a secret meeting with Western Union's president, Newcomb Carlton. Their object was to convince him to grant them secret access to the private communications zapping through his company's wires.
It was easier achieved than Yardley had ever imagined. "After the men had put all our cards on the table," Yardley later described, "President Carlton seemed anxious to do everything he could for us.'"
Time and again over the decades, this pattern has been repeated. The NSA, or a predecessor, secretly entered into agreements with the country's major telecommunications companies and illegally gained access to Americans' private communications.
In a much-cited story, the influential Republican statesman, Henry L. Stimson, was described as deeply offended by the very notion of snooping into people's private communications. As the new secretary of state in 1929, Stimson shut down the Black Chamber with the now immortal phrase, "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail."
But when President Franklin D. Roosevelt later appointed Stimson secretary of war during World War Two, Stimson changed his mind. He wanted to eavesdrop on every possible communication, especially on the Germans and Japanese.
Once the guns of World War Two began falling silent, however, the communications privacy laws again took effect. Thus, Brigadier General W. Preston Corderman, the chief of the Signals Intelligence Service - another pre-NSA iteration — faced the same dilemma Yardley confronted after World War One: a lack of access to the cables flowing into, out of and through the country.
So, once again, deals were made with the major telegraph companies - the Internet providers of the day - to grant the SIS (and later the NSA) secret access to their communications.
Codenamed "Operation Shamrock," agents would arrive at the back door at each telecom headquarters in New York around midnight; pick up all that days telegraph traffic, and bring it to an office masquerading as a television tape processing company. There they would use a machine to duplicate all the computer tapes containing the telegrams, and, hours later, return the original tapes to the company.
The secret agreement lasted for 30 years. It only ended in 1975, when the nation was shocked by a series of stunning intelligence revelations uncovered by a congressional investigation led by Senator Frank Church.
The illegality and vast breadth of this one operation stunned both the left and the right, Republicans as well as Democrats. The parties came together to create a new law to make sure nothing like it could ever happen again. Known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the legislation created a secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to ensure that the NSA only eavesdropped on Americans when there was probable cause to suspect they were involved in serious national security crimes — such as espionage or terrorism.
For more than a quarter-century, the NSA obeyed this law. The intelligence agency turned its giant ears outward — away from the everyday lives of Americans. But that all changed soon after September 11, 2001, when the Bush administration began its warrantless wiretapping program.
Once again, an NSA director sought the secret cooperation of the nation's telecom industry to gain access to its communications channels and links. Again, the companies agreed — despite violating the laws and the privacy of their tens of millions of customers. Eventually, when the operation was discovered, a number of groups brought suit against the companies, Congress passed legislation granting them immunity.
Thus, for roughly 100 years, whenever the government knocked on the telecommunications industry's door and asked them to break the law and turn over millions upon millions of private communications, the telecoms complied. Why not, since they knew that nothing would ever happen to them if they broke the law.
Now, as a result of these new revelations, it appears that the NSA has again gone to Verizon and other telephone companies, as well as many of the giant Internet companies, and obtained secret access to millions, if not billions, of private communications. There are still many questions as to what, if any, legal justification was used.
But unlike with Yardley and the Black Chamber, the dangers today of secret cooperation between the telecom and Internet industry and the NSA are incomparable. Because of technology back then, the only data the government was able to obtain were telegrams — which few average people sent or received.
Today, however, access to someone's telephone records and Internet activity can provide an incredibly intimate window on their life.
Phone data reveals whom they call, where they call, how often they call someone, where they are calling from and how long they speak to each person. Internet data provides e-mail content, Google searches, pictures, and personal and financial details.
We now live in an era when access to someone's email account and web searches can paint a more detailed picture of their life then most personal diaries. Secret agreements between intelligence agencies and communications companies should not be allowed in a democracy. There is too much at risk.
In a dusty corner of Utah, NSA is now completing construction of a mammoth new building, a one-million-square foot data warehouse for storing the billions of communications it is intercepting. If the century-old custom of secret back-room deals between NSA and the telecoms is permitted to continue, all of us may digitally end up there.
Contrary to what Simpson may have asserted, gentlemen (and women) do read each other's mail — at least if they work for the National Security Agency.
And in the future, given NSA's unrestrained push into advanced technologies, the agency may also be able to read your thoughts as well as your mail.
(James Bamford is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)
(James Bamford writes frequently on intelligence and produces documentaries for PBS. His latest book is "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America.")