by Tim Shorrock
from Salon Website
The last several years have brought a parade of dark revelations about the George W. Bush administration, from the manipulation of intelligence to torture to extrajudicial spying inside the United States.
But there are growing indications that these known abuses of
power may only be the tip of the iceberg. Now, in the twilight of the Bush
presidency, a movement is stirring in Washington for a sweeping new inquiry
into White House malfeasance that would be modeled after the famous Church
Committee congressional investigation of the 1970s.
It also includes signs of the NSA's working closely with other U.S. government agencies to track financial transactions domestically as well as globally.
Salon composite / Reuters images
The proposal for a Church Committee-style investigation emerged from talks between civil liberties advocates and aides to Democratic leaders in Congress, according to sources involved. (Pelosi's and Conyers' offices both declined to comment.)
Looking forward to 2009, when both Congress and the White House may well be controlled by Democrats, the idea is to have Congress appoint an investigative body to discover the full extent of what the Bush White House did in the war on terror to undermine the Constitution and U.S. and international laws.
The goal would be to implement government reforms aimed at preventing future abuses - and perhaps to bring accountability for wrongdoing by Bush officials.
The parameters for an investigation were outlined in a seven-page memo, written after the former member of the Church Committee met for discussions with the ACLU, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Common Cause and other watchdog groups.
Key issues to investigate, those involved say,
would include the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance
activities; the Central Intelligence Agency's use of extraordinary rendition
and torture against terrorist suspects; and the U.S. government's extensive
use of military assets - including satellites, Pentagon intelligence
agencies and U2 surveillance planes - for a vast spying apparatus that could
be used against the American people.
As of mid-July, says Steinhardt, the no-fly list includes more than 1 million records corresponding to more than 400,000 names. If those people really represent terrorist threats, he says, "our cities would be ablaze."
A deeper investigation into intelligence abuses should focus on how these lists feed on each other, Steinhardt says, as well as the government's "inexorable trend towards treating everyone as a suspect."
A prime area of inquiry for a sweeping new investigation would be the Bush administration's alleged use of a top-secret database to guide its domestic surveillance. Dating back to the 1980s and known to government insiders as "Main Core" (see below insert), the database reportedly collects and stores - without warrants or court orders - the names and detailed data of Americans considered to be threats to national security.
According to several former U.S. government officials with extensive knowledge of intelligence operations, Main Core in its current incarnation apparently contains a vast amount of personal data on Americans, including NSA intercepts of bank and credit card transactions and the results of surveillance efforts by the FBI, the CIA and other agencies.
One former intelligence official described Main Core as "an emergency internal security database system" designed for use by the military in the event of a national catastrophe, a suspension of the Constitution or the imposition of martial law.
Its name, he says, is derived from the fact that it contains,
Some of the former U.S. officials interviewed,
although they have no direct knowledge of the issue, said they believe that
Main Core may have been used by the NSA to determine who to spy on in the
immediate aftermath of 9/11. Moreover, the NSA's use of the database, they
say, may have triggered the now-famous March 2004 confrontation between the
White House and the Justice Department that nearly led Attorney General John
Ashcroft, FBI director William Mueller and other top Justice officials to
resign en masse.
Although they refused to discuss the highly classified details behind their concerns, the New York Times later reported that they were objecting to a program that,
According to William Hamilton, a former NSA intelligence officer who left the agency in the 1970s, that description sounded a lot like Main Core, which he first heard about in detail in 1992.
Hamilton, who is the president of
Inslaw Inc., a computer services firm with
many clients in government and the private sector, says there are strong
indications that the Bush administration's domestic surveillance operations
use Main Core.
PROMIS, also widely used in the insurance industry, can also sort through other databases fast, with results showing up almost instantly.
Since the late 1980s, Inslaw has been involved in a legal dispute over its claim that Justice Department officials in the Reagan administration appropriated the PROMIS software. Hamilton claims that Reagan officials gave PROMIS to the NSA and the CIA, which then adapted the software - and its outstanding ability to search other databases - to manage intelligence operations and track financial transactions.
Over the years, Hamilton has employed prominent
lawyers to pursue the case, including Elliot Richardson, the former attorney
general and secretary of defense who died in 1999, and C. Boyden Gray, the
former White House counsel to President
George H.W. Bush. The dispute has
never been settled. But based on the long-running case, Hamilton says he
believes U.S. intelligence uses PROMIS as the primary software for searching
the Main Core database.
But he informed Hamilton that the NSA's use of PROMIS involved something,
Hamilton also provided copies of letters that
Richardson and Gray sent to U.S. intelligence officials and the Justice
Department on Inslaw's behalf alleging that the NSA and the CIA had
appropriated PROMIS for intelligence use.
Through a former senior Justice Department official with more than 25 years of government experience, Salon has learned of a high-level former national security official who reportedly has firsthand knowledge of the U.S. government's use of Main Core.
The official worked as a senior intelligence analyst for a large domestic law enforcement agency inside the Bush White House. He would not agree to an interview. But according to the former Justice Department official, the former intelligence analyst told her that while stationed at the White House after the 9/11 attacks, one day he accidentally walked into a restricted room and came across a computer system that was logged on to what he recognized to be the Main Core database.
When she mentioned the specific name of the top-secret system during their conversation, she recalled,
An article in Radar magazine in May, citing three unnamed former government officials, reported that,
The alleged use of Main Core by the Bush
administration for surveillance, if confirmed to be true, would indicate a
much deeper level of secretive government intrusion into Americans' lives
than has been previously known. With respect to civil liberties, says the
ACLU's Steinhardt, it would be "pretty frightening stuff."
His admission is the first public
acknowledgement by a former U.S. intelligence official that the NSA used the
After 9/11, this capability was instantly seen within the U.S. government as a critical tool in the war on terror - and apparently was deployed by the Bush administration inside the United States, in cases involving alleged terrorist supporters. One such case was that of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation in Oregon, which was accused of having terrorist ties after the NSA, at the request of the Treasury Department, eavesdropped on the phone calls of Al-Haramain officials and their American lawyers.
The charges against Al-Haramain were based
primarily on secret evidence that the Bush administration refused to
disclose in legal proceedings; Al-Haramain's lawyers argued in a lawsuit
that was a violation of the defendants' due process rights.
The use of a powerful database and extensive watch lists, Bailey said, would make the NSA's job much easier.
Regarding domestic surveillance, Bailey said there's a,
Bailey's information on the evolution of the Reagan intelligence program appears to corroborate and clarify an article published in March in the Wall Street Journal, which reported that the NSA was conducting domestic surveillance using,
Some of these programs began "years before the 9/11 attacks but have since been given greater reach." Among them, the article said, are a joint NSA-Treasury database on financial transactions that dates back "about 15 years" to 1993.
That's not quite right, Bailey clarified:
Main Core (see below video) may be the contemporary incarnation of a government watch list system that was part of a highly classified "Continuity of Government" program created by the Reagan administration to keep the U.S. government functioning in the event of a nuclear attack.
from YouTube Website
Under a 1982 presidential directive, the outbreak of war could trigger the proclamation of martial law nationwide, giving the military the authority to use its domestic database to round up citizens and residents considered to be threats to national security.
The emergency measures for domestic security
were to be carried out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and
During the Iran-Contra congressional hearings in
1987, questions to Reagan aide Oliver North about the database were ruled
out of order by the committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye,
because of the "highly sensitive and classified" nature of FEMA's domestic
It was during this emergency period, Hamilton and other former government officials believe, that President Bush may have authorized the NSA to begin actively using the Main Core database for domestic surveillance.
One indicator they cite is a statement by Bush in December 2005, after the New York Times had revealed the NSA's warrantless wiretapping, in which he made a rare reference to the emergency program:
It is noteworthy that two key players on Bush's national security team, Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, have been involved in the Continuity of Government program since its inception.
Along with Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's first secretary of defense, both men took part in simulated drills for the program during the 1980s and early 1990s. Addington's role was disclosed in "The Dark Side," a book published this month about the Bush administration's war on terror by New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer.
In the book, Mayer calls Addington "the father
of the [NSA] eavesdropping program," and reports that he was the key figure
involved in the 2004 dispute between the White House and the Justice
Department over the legality of the program. That would seem to make him a
prime witness for a broader investigation.
During one recent discussion on Capitol Hill, according to a participant, a senior aide to Speaker Pelosi was asked for Pelosi's views on a proposal to expand the investigation to past administrations, including those of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
That question was answered in the seven-page memo.
Even though he acknowledged in interviews with
Salon that the scope of abuse under George W. Bush would likely be an order
of magnitude greater than under preceding presidents, he recommended in the
memo that any new investigation follow the precedent of the Church Committee
and investigate the origins of Bush's programs, going as far back as the
As a result of its work, Congress in 1978 passed
the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required warrants and court
supervision for domestic wiretaps, and created intelligence oversight
committees in the House and Senate.
The new legislation could prevent the full story of the NSA surveillance programs from ever being uncovered; it included retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that may have violated FISA by collaborating with the NSA on warrantless wiretapping.
Opponents of Bush's policies were further
angered when Democratic leaders stripped from their competing FISA bill a
provision that would have established a national commission to investigate
post-9/11 surveillance programs.
Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate,
is running as a champion of Bush's national security policies and would be
unlikely to embrace an investigation that would, foremost, embarrass his own
party. (Randy Scheunemann, McCain's spokesman on national security, declined
The plus with Obama, says the former Church Committee staffer, is that as a proponent of open government, he could order the executive branch to be more cooperative with Congress, rolling back the obsessive secrecy and stonewalling of the Bush White House.
That could open the door to greater
congressional scrutiny and oversight of the intelligence community, since
the legislative branch lacked any real teeth under Bush. (Obama's spokesman
on national security, Ben Rhodes, did not reply to telephone calls and
e-mails seeking comment.)