From HTLINGUAL to Prism: the scandal of the new normal

The technological infrastructure of the American surveillance state, as exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, is new. The ideological pretensions of the U.S. surveillance state are not.

The role of the U.S. government agencies in systematically spying on its citizenry to advance U.S. policymaker goals extends back to the 1930s (as James Bamford recounts for Reuters.) The sense of scandal is not new. In Washington, deja vu is spiking. The excesses of the surveillance state have been exposed before, with domestic spying scandals generating headlines in 1975 and again in 2006.

What Americans see is the scandal of the new normal in Washington.

The constitutional republic envisioned by the Founding Fathers has been superceded by a national security regime that has created a surveillance state (said to be indispensable to public safety) and a secrecy system that insulates both from scrutiny, accountability, and law.

Popular suspicions of this national security order are not new. They are driven by fear of the worst. Such fears first became a force in public opinion in the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy 50 years ago. It was JFK’s violent death under enigmatic circumstances–and the factually limited explanation provided by the CIA and FBI–that first alerted the American people to the troubling nature of the secrecy system that operates out of Washington in their name. Deep suspicion (some say paranoia) have governed the American thinking about the CIA and U.S. intelligence agencies ever since.

Previous scandals

Popular demands that the federal government produce a more credible explanation of JFK’s death in the mid-1960s constituted one of the first real challenges to the culture of secrecy that had grown up in support of America’s Cold War against international communism. And these demands had real world impact.

Amidst a wave of popular skepticism about the findings of the Warren Commission, Congress passed the Freedom of Information (FOIA) in 1966, promising to make U.S. government records open to the citizenry. In time, the FOIA, while flawed to be sure, became an indispensable tool of accountability and open government in the United States and a model for governments around the world.

Suspicion of U.S. national security agencies flared in the mid-1970s, again with visible results. In 1975 revelations about CIA and FBI misconduct in the JFK assassination story provoked outrage in Congress. The Senate launched into its first serious investigation of the national security agencies that had been given free rein since the end of World War II.

For the first (but not last) time, the American people learned about illicit surveillance programs set up by the CIA and the National Security Agency.

In December 1974, the New York Times exposed two illicit surveillance programs run by the CIA with the kind of evocative but cryptic code names that remain in style with America’s covert operators.

The first, known as HTLINGUAL, opened and copied hundreds of thousands of letters mailed from the United States to Russia and China since 1952. (Among other accomplishments, HTLINGUAL enabled legendarily ominous CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton to keep close tabs on an obscure young man named Lee Harvey Oswald from November 1959 to November 1963.)

The second illicit CIA operation, known as Chaos, had been ordered by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. Overseen by Angleton, Chaos was a mammoth domestic spying operation that tried (and failed) to find foreign involvement in the student anti-war movement.

NSA’s track record

The exposure of HTLINGUAL and Chaos in 1975 was followed shortly by the exposure of two similar, but much larger electronic surveillance networks, called “Shamrock” and “Minaret,” which were run by the National Security Agency.

Operation Shamrock had started three decades before in 1947 with the now-familiar collaboration of the leaders of the telecommunications industry.

Bamford writes:

“Codenamed ‘Operation Shamrock,’ agents would arrive at the back door at each telecom headquarters in New York around midnight; pick up all that day’s 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,” Bamford writes.

Collectively, the disclosure of HTLINGUAL and Shamrock showed the abuse of power was not the exclusive province of the CIA nor the product of a lone bureaucratic nut but the result of systemic ideological corruption. The operators of the U.S. surveillance system seemed to respect no limits prescribed by the law or the Constitution.

“The illegality and vast breadth of this one operation stunned both the left and the right, Republicans as well as Democrats,” Bamford notes of Operation Shamrock “The parties came together to create a new law to make sure nothing like it could ever happen again.”

That was 1975. Now it has happened again.

The Cold War has been succeeded by the global war on terror. “HTLINGUAL” and “Shamrock” have morphed into “Boundless Informant” and “Prism.” The enemy has changed. The technology has changed. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the insistent demand for secrecy, now and forever.

That’s why suspicion of intelligence agencies is flaring again in 2013.


If you liked this article, check out:

Building America’s secret surveillance state, by James Bamford, Reuters

Who was James Angleton? by Jefferson Morley, JFK Facts.

Did the CIA track Lee Harvey Oswald before JFK was killed? by Jefferson Morley, JFK Facts.


2 thoughts on “From HTLINGUAL to Prism: the scandal of the new normal”

  1. Footnote: When I entered the Army in April 1970 as a 2LT, M.I. Branch, I was slotted to go to Germany as an E-warfare officer for NSA, because of my E.E. undergrad degree.

    I opted for language school and Viet Nam and never regretted the decision. NSA would have let me snoop on East German and Soviet communications. Way too boring, I felt. Apparently, boredom doesn’t bother today’s NSA snoops. They’re 9-to-5ers, I’m sure.

  2. Because this NSA revelation is so new and so shocking to so many in America & abroad opinions are probably going to change as more and more is learned. At present, several people I have talked to have displayed attitudes of “so what if the NSA knows how many times I order a pizza each month & what topping I asked for” to “it don’t mean a thing until they bring on the search warrants, the arresting force, the lawyers and the judges”. This latter attitude reminds me of what the cool, calm collected Lee Oswald displayed on TV and what his captors said he told them during questioning.
    Isn’t it a good feeling that our presence in life has a purpose, for each phone call we place or each email we send gives someone in Intelligence the secret job to grab that information, store it and play with it.
    I doubt very seriously the writers of our Constitution would be pleased or quiet about this. While the hunt is on for the whistleblower there are those who see what he did as civil disobedience against an unjust government, something that has happened before in U.S. history and sometimes rewarded.

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