A number of high ranking lawmakers were hard pressed on the morning talk shows today to dispel rumors of a major intelligence overhaul supposedly passed by Congress earlier this week. Details of the supposed bill, leaked to the press and then spread through the internet rumor mill, eventually resulted in a complaint by the ACLU that it “would centralize the intelligence community’s surveillance powers, increasing the likelihood for government abuses.” The complaint criticized especially the expansion of wiretap and other surveillance powers and said that the creation of a so-called Civil Liberties Oversights Board was merely a token measure that “risks becoming the proverbial fox guarding the hen house.”
“The ACLU jumped the gun on this one,” Joseph Lieberman, one of the bill’s alleged sponsors, told Oprah Winfrey. “What they’re talking about would be over three thousand pages long. How could we have had enough time to read it, let alone pass it?” Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, appearing on the Today Show this morning, said that the so-called “September 11 Bill” was confused with another secret intelligence bill that was passed the same week and which he couldn’t discuss “because it’s secret.” He insisted that the sweeping domestic police powers implied in the so-called September 11 Bill not only would be “totally unjustified and very, very wasteful and dangerous to the national security,” but would be “stunningly expensive.”
When asked by Rosie O’Donnell if the rumors of the bill’s passage were true, Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner denied it and said that he was still seeking to remove language from it that would limit government persecution of immigrants and that a compromise was unlikely until the new session of Congress that begins in January.
Rep. Jane Harman of California, senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, complained on Regis and Kelly that the media had gone “overboard” with rumors of a national ID card and a national intelligence director who would be little more than head of secret police. “According to one website I saw,” Harman told Kelly, “this guy would establish an NCC that would control the CIA, the NSA, and 13 other intelligence agencies. Just a few years ago,” said Harman, “that would have been looked at as a police state.”
Rockefeller seems to agree. “Not even during the height of the Cold War spy mania of the McCarthy period could we have gotten away with the kinds of things they’re saying,” he insisted. “Now people are supposed to believe that it just sailed through both houses of Congress by overwhelming margins.” He pointed out that, although the CIA is forbidden by law from spying in the US or against American citizens, and the FBI is supposed to conduct criminal investigations, not intelligence-gathering, these legal restraints, put in place after revelations in the early 1970s of illegal FBI political spying and CIA assassination plots, are regularly ignored.
“Why pass a law admitting that we’re spying?” Rockefeller asked. “When you tell people you’re spying on them, you never catch them doing anything; you just hopefully make them too paranoid to do anything.” Sensenbrenner likewise complained that some “Monday morning quarterbacks” on the internet were “trying to make it sound like we’re bringing back the Japanese internment camps.” He was referring to one website that claimed the new law included “detention centers to hold 8,000 immigrants imprisoned while awaiting deportation or trial,” as well as 15,000 more border police and immigration agents.
Lieberman told Oprah that “if you really spied on the internet and wireless communications systems like their saying, and coordinated and shared all the data, you’d end up with one big database with everybody in it and anybody just considered politically suspect or targeted for surveillance that the Gestapo could only dream about.” Any such legislation, Lieberman insisted, would be compelled to stipulate that only members of terrorist organizations were subject to such surveillance or else “just any individual could be labeled a suspected ‘lone wolf’ terrorist by Ashcroft or who knows who and subjected to the same treatment as Al Qaeda.”
The lawmakers were in agreement that the alleged authorization of outsourcing torture of prisoners would have been completely uncalled for, as it is already employed against suspects captured by the CIA or US military overseas, but only illegal for prisoners detained in the US. All were agreed, too, that the bill was still held up by the ongoing warfare within the military-intelligence apparatus, and especially between the CIA and Pentagon, which has been raging for years and has intensified along with the deteriorating situation for the US in Iraq. The CIA is still trying to avoid being blamed by the Pentagon for the lies it was ordered to tell by the White House.
Rockefeller said that the source of the confusion was the passage on December 7 of another mysterious secret spy program that drew extraordinary praise from leading Democrats. Rockefeller and three other Democratic senators-Richard Durbin of Illinois, Carl Levin of Michigan and Ron Wyden of Oregon-signed the measure, saying that it was overdue and vital to national security. The four senators believed that the funds for the September 11 Bill would be better spent on this mystery program “which will make a surer and greater contribution to national security.”
Each senator–and more than two dozen current and former U.S. officials contacted by Unconfirmed Sources–declined to further describe or identify the program, citing its classified nature. Thirteen other senators on the Intelligence Committee and all their counterparts in the House approved it. In signing the measure Harman said, “I have always said that good people need better tools. Here come the tools to help good people succeed.” She could not reveal, however, what the tools were or when the good people might be expected.
The rare praise of a highly secretive project in such a public forum intrigued outside intelligence experts, who said the program was almost certainly a spy satellite system. They cited tantalizing hints in Rockefeller’s remarks, such as the program’s enormous expense. “It’s sure as expensive as a satellite program,” said James Bamford, author of two books about the National Security Agency. “In the intelligence community, satellite programs are so hard to get a handle on, and this one is hard to get a handle on, so it’s probably a satellite program.” They also pointed out that Donald H. Rumsfeld, prior to his appointment as defense secretary for President Bush, once remarked that the United States was “an attractive candidate for a Space Pearl Harbor. For somebody else, I mean.”
Rockefeller’s description of the spy project as a “major funding acquisition success” suggests a price tag in the range of billions of dollars, intelligence experts said. John Pike, a defense analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, who has studied anti-satellite weapons for more than three decades said that the secret program was so totally a spy satellite program. He said that other countries would inevitably demand proof that any weapons were only defensive, but he was certain that most Americans wouldn’t care one way or the other. “That’s good,” a Pentagon spokesman said, “as it would present just absolutely insurmountable verification problems because we are not going to let anybody look at our spy satellites. It is just not going to happen.”