Timeline: The Abyss From Which There is No Return 

The legacy of Frank Church, government surveillance and dire warnings

With its legendary libertarian streak, Idaho's unofficial motto could be "Leave Me the Hell Alone," and that goes double for the federal government.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter--then a U.S. House member--was one of only three Republicans to vote against the USA Patriot Act, signed into law soon after 9/11 and containing a suite of controversial measures granting sweeping intelligence-gathering and other powers to the National Security Agency, CIA and FBI.

But Idaho politicians were pushing back against government overreach far earlier. Legendary late-Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, led an 11-member panel investigating the U.S. intelligence community in the mid-1970s. The Church Committee targeted the CIA for meddling in foreign governments, but also uncovered a decades-long practice of domestic spying by the NSA, CIA and FBI--programs not unlike those brought to light by whistleblowers Pvt. Bradley Manning, who leaked documents detailing U.S. surveillance of its allies, and NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who similarly revealed the NSA's program of intercepting millions of Americans' emails and other online data, codenamed PRISM.

Church's description of the NSA's top-secret Project Shamrock could be pasted nearly 40 years later into reports on PRISM: "At the outset, the purpose apparently was only to extract international telegrams relating to certain foreign targets. Later the government began to extract the telegrams of certain U.S. citizens," he said.

The Church Committee found the NSA had been analyzing about 150,000 messages every month, snooping on everyone from Vietnam War protesters to civil-rights activists. In 1976, after nine months of hearings, the committee issued its 2-foot-thick report, revealing intelligence agencies had been running wild for three decades.

The investigation prompted more oversight in the form of the permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, approved by Congress in 1978.

Those bulwarks have since been eroded (see Timeline, Page 12), and the whistleblowers have not fared so well. Manning faces up to 136 years in prison, while Snowden--recently granted temporary asylum in Russia--states he has "no plans" of returning to the U.S.

Church earned few friends for his efforts. Though he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, he lost to then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. Running for a fifth Senate term in 1980, opposition from the Anybody But Church Committee helped secure his defeat by Republican Steve Symms.

Church died in 1984, and while the committee that bears his name lives on, it has remained a target for conservatives, especially after 9/11, when former Secretary of State James Baker claimed its work forced the country to "unilaterally disarm in terms of our intelligence capabilities."

Church, of course, would have disagreed.

"I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America," he said at the time of the Church Committee hearings, "and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."

Mass Surveillance in America

A Timeline of Loosening Laws and Practices

1978: Surveillance court created

After a post-Watergate Senate investigation documented abuses of government surveillance, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to regulate how the government can monitor suspected spies or terrorists in the United States. The law established a secret court that issues warrants for electronic surveillance or physical searches of a "foreign power" or "agents of a foreign power" (broadly defined in the law). The government doesn't have to demonstrate probable cause of a crime, just that the "purpose of the surveillance is to obtain foreign intelligence information."

The court's sessions and opinions are classified. The only information we have is a yearly report to the Senate documenting the number of "applications" made by the government. Since 1978, the court has approved thousands of applications--and rejected just 11.

October 2001: Patriot Act passed

In the wake of 9/11, Congress passed the sweeping USA Patriot Act. One provision, Section 215, allows the FBI to ask the FISA court to compel the sharing of books, business documents, tax records, library check-out lists--actually, "any tangible thing"--as part of a foreign intelligence or international terrorism investigation. The required material can include purely domestic records.

October 2003: 'Vacuum-cleaner surveillance' of the Internet

AT&T technician Mark Klein discovered what he believed to be newly installed NSA data-mining equipment in a "secret room" at a company facility in San Francisco. Klein, who several years later went public with his story to support a lawsuit against the company, believed the equipment enables "vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the Internet--whether that be peoples' email, web surfing or any other data."

March 2004: Ashcroft hospital showdown

In what would become one of the most famous moments of the Bush administration, presidential aides Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales showed up at the hospital bed of John Ashcroft. Their purpose? To convince the seriously ill attorney general to sign off on the extension of a secret domestic spying program. Ashcroft refused, believing the warrantless program to be illegal.

The hospital showdown was first reported by The New York Times, but two years later, Newsweek provided more detail, describing a program that sounds similar to the one the Guardian revealed in June. The NSA, Newsweek reported citing anonymous sources, collected without court approval vast quantities of phone and email metadata "with cooperation from some of the country's largest telecommunications companies" from "tens of millions of average Americans." The magazine said the program itself began in September 2001 and was shut down in March 2004 after the hospital incident. But Newsweek also raised the possibility that Bush may have found new justification to continue some of the activity.

December 2005: Warrantless wiretapping revealed

The Times, over the objections of the Bush administration, revealed that since 2002 the government "monitored the international telephone calls and international email messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants." The program involves actually listening in on phone calls and reading emails without seeking permission from the FISA Court.

January 2006: Bush defends wiretapping

President George W. Bush defended what he called the "terrorist surveillance program" in a speech in Kansas. He said the program only looked at calls in which one end of the communication was overseas.

March 2006: Patriot Act renewed

The Senate and House passed legislation to renew the USA Patriot Act with broad bipartisan support and Bush signed it into law. It included a few new protections for records required to be produced under the controversial Section 215.

May 2006: Mass collection of call data revealed

USA Today reported that the NSA had been collecting data since 2001 on phone records of "tens of millions of Americans" through three major phone companies, Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth (though the companies' level of involvement was later disputed). The data collected did not include content of calls but rather data like phone numbers for analyzing communication patterns.

As with the wiretapping program revealed by The Times, the NSA data collection occurred without warrants, according to USA Today. Unlike the wiretapping program, the NSA data collection was not limited to international communications.

2006: Court authorizes collection of call data

The mass data collection reported by the Guardian apparently was first authorized by the FISA court in 2006, though exactly when is not clear. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, said, "As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years." Similarly, the Washington Post quoted an anonymous "expert in this aspect of the law," who said the document published by the Guardian appeared to be a "routine renewal" of an order first issued in 2006. It was not clear whether those orders represented court approval of the previously warrantless data collection that USA Today described.

January 2007: Bush administration says surveillance now operating with court approval

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that the FISA Court allowed the government to target international communications that start or end in the United States, as long as one person was "a member or agent of al-Qaeda or an associated terrorist organization." Gonzalez said the government was ending the "terrorist surveillance program," and bringing such cases under FISA approval.

August 2007: Congress expands surveillance powers

The FISA Court reportedly changed its stance and put more limits on the Bush administration's surveillance (the details of the court's move are still not known). In response, Congress quickly passed, and Bush signed, a stopgap law, the Protect America Act.

In many cases, the government could then get blanket surveillance warrants without naming specific individuals as targets. To do that, the government needed to show that it was not intentionally targeting people in the United States, even if domestic communications were swept up in the process.

September 2007: PRISM begins

The FBI and the NSA got access to user data from Microsoft under a top-secret program known as PRISM, according to an NSA PowerPoint briefing published by the Washington Post and the Guardian. In subsequent years, the government reportedly got data from eight other companies including Apple and Google. "The extent and nature of the data collected from each company varies," according to the Guardian.

July 2008: Congress renews broader surveillance powers

Congress followed up the Protect America Act with another law, the FISA Amendments Act, extending the government's expanded spying powers for another four years. The law approached the kind of warrantless wiretapping that occurred earlier in the Bush administration. Sen. Barack Obama votes for the act.

The act also gave immunity to telecom companies for their participation in warrantless wiretapping.

April 2009: NSA 'overcollects'

The New York Times reported that for several months, the NSA had gotten ahold of domestic communications it wasn't supposed to. The Times reported it was likely the result of "technical problems in the NSA's ability" to distinguish between domestic and overseas communications. The Justice Department claimed the problems had been resolved.

February 2010: Controversial Patriot Act provision extended

President Obama signed a temporary one-year extension of elements of the Patriot Act that were set to expire--including Section 215, which granted the government broad powers to seize records.

May 2011: Patriot Act renewed, again

The House and Senate passed legislation to extend the overall Patriot Act. Obama, who was in Europe as the law was set to expire, directed the bill to be signed with an "autopen" machine in his stead--the first time a U.S. president had done so.

March 2012: Senators warn cryptically of overreach

In a letter to the attorney general, Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado wrote, "We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details" of how the government had interpreted Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Because the program is classified, the senators offered no further details.

July 2012: Court finds unconstitutional surveillance

According to a declassified statement by Wyden, the FISA Court held on at least one occasion that information collection carried out by the government was unconstitutional. But the details of that episode, including when it happened, have never been revealed.

December 2012: Broad powers again extended

Congress extended the FISA Amendments Act another five years, and Obama signed it into law. Sens. Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, offered amendments requiring more disclosure about the law's impact. The proposals failed.

April 2013: Verizon order issued

As the Guardian revealed, FISA Court Judge Roger Vinson issued a secret court order directing Verizon Business Network Services to turn over "metadata"--including the time, duration and location of phone calls, though not what was said on the calls--to the NSA for all calls over the following three months. Verizon was ordered to deliver the records "on an ongoing daily basis." The Wall Street Journal reported that AT&T and Sprint had similar arrangements.

The Verizon order cited Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the FBI to request a court order that requires a business to turn over "any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items)" relevant to an international spying or terrorism investigation. In 2012, the government asked for 212 such orders, and the court approved them all.

June 2013: Congress and White House respond

Following the publication of the Guardian's story about the Verizon order, Sens. Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the chair and vice of the Senate Intelligence Committee, held a news conference to dismiss criticism of the order. "This is nothing particularly new," Chambliss said. "This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the FISA authority, and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this."

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged the collection of phone metadata but said the information acquired was "subject to strict restrictions on handling" and that "only a very small fraction of the records are ever reviewed." Clapper also issued a statement saying that the collection under the PRISM program was justified under the FISA Amendments of 2008, and that it was not "intentionally targeting" any American or person in the United States.

Statements from the tech companies reportedly taking part in the Prism program variously disavowed knowledge of the program and merely stated in broad terms they follow the law. :

Cora Currier, Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer, ProPublica

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