Give Me Liberty Or Give Me… Sex?

As a writer with openly progressive opinions living overseas, I would be surprised if my emails and telephone calls to Our Kid – a poli-sci professor who studied in Madrid and wrote her PhD on Spanish terrorism – have not been monitored by the US government. It’s been a long-standing joke between us to wave hello to the lonely NSA guy in the basement listening in on our conversations. But a new ABC report confirms what has long been suspected – it’s no joke. NSA officials have intentionally intercepted, listened to and passed around the phone calls of hundreds of innocent U.S. citizens working overseas, including journalists and international aid workers including the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, even when it was definite the calls were not related to anything to do with national security, while the government misled the American public about the scope of its surveillance activities. But rather than listening for possible connections to suspected terrorists, it seems what really interests those NSA guys with headphones down in the basement is… sex.

According to Adrienne Kinne and David Murfee Faulk, two former military intercept operators who worked at the giant National Security Agency (NSA) center in Fort Gordon, Georgia, for years intercept operators listened in on hundreds of phone calls from American soldiers in Baghdad’s Green Zone as they talked to their spouses, girlfriends, and family about ‘personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism.’ Intercept operators assigned to a special military program at the NSA's Back Hall at Fort Gordon would routinely share salacious phone calls that had been recorded, and gossip about it during breaks. ‘ “Hey, check this out, there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out.” It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, “Wow, this was crazy”.’

‘The American public is led to believe that the NSA is eavesdropping on calls where one party is a member of al Qaeda, but in reality the NSA is monitoring and collecting the personal communications of innocent Americans,’ said James Bamford, who first interviewed the former intercept officers for his book, ‘The Shadow Factory,’ due out next week. ‘What's worse, once a telephone number or e-mail address gets picked up, it stays in the system. Every communication from the number or address is picked up, monitored and stored permanently.’

Then-NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden, now director of the CIA, testified before Congress, denied that private conversations of Americans are being intercepted. He was asked by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), ‘Are you just doing this because you just want to pry into people's lives?’ He answered, ‘No, sir.’ However, a US intelligence official said ‘all employees of the US government’ should expect that their telephone conversations could be monitored as part of an effort to safeguard security and ‘information assurance.’

‘They certainly didn't consent to having interceptions of their telephone sex conversations being passed around like some type of fraternity game,’ said Jonathon Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University who has testified before Congress on the country's warrantless surveillance program.

The two intercept operators have independently come forward to blow the whistle, feeling what they were doing was illegal, improper, immoral, and shouldn't be done. Both intercept operators said their military commanders rejected questions about listening in to these private conversations. ‘It was just always, that , you know, your job is not to question. Your job is to collect and pass on the information.’ Kinne also resented the waste of time spent listening to innocent Americans instead of looking for the terrorist needle in the haystack, underscoring the failure of the program.

‘By casting the net so wide and continuing to collect on Americans and aid organizations, it's almost like they're making the haystack bigger and it's harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody,’ she said.‘You're actually hurting our ability to effectively protect our national security.’

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), called the allegations ‘extremely disturbing’ and said the committee has begun its own examination. ‘Today's report is an indictment not only of the Bush administration, but of all of those political leaders, Democratic and Republican, who have been saying that the executive branch can be trusted with surveillance powers that are essentially unchecked,’ said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) pledged to revisit the FAA again in 2009 when provisions of the controversial USA Patriot Act are due to expire. It would seem unlikely, however, that apologies from Senators Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), Jeff Sessions (R- Alabama) or John Cornyn (R-Texas) would be forthcoming, resorting to the habitual ‘Give Me Death’ justification for the Bush domestic spying program.

‘Over 3,000 Americans have no civil rights because they are no longer with us,’ Sessions said. This was echoed by Roberts on his opposition to investigation into the misuses of pre-Iraqi war intelligence. ‘You really don't have any civil liberties if you're dead.’ Cornyn likewise defended the NSA’s domestic surveillance program with the statement, ‘None of your civil liberties matter much after you're dead.’

Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) responded with Patrick Henry's clarion call, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ But for some Republicans, it seems it’s more a case of Give me Liberty or give me… sex.

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