Welcome to the Soviet-style Internet

Tales of the National Security Agency's attacks on whistleblowers recall the tactics of earlier totalitarian governments. These are the people we're supposed to trust not to abuse access to domestic networks?

Cybercast News Service, in the first of a two-part report, has the story of five current and former National Security Agency employees who have been smeared and intimidated by the agency when they disagreed with superiors and talked about it. It's a tale that could have come out of the Soviet Union, involving falsified psychological reports to isolate and, eventually, fire whistleblowers. [UPDATE: Here's the second part of the report.]

Remember, the NSA is the agency that President Bush has empowered to conduct warrantless monitoring of U.S. citizens' telecommunications. While visiting NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, on Wednesday, Bush assured Americans the agency—and him—can be trusted with extraordinary access to domestic communications: "This"I’m still afraid they’re going to screw my life over. I never even owned a computer because I know what they can do." — Former NSA analyst terrorist surveillance program includes multiple safeguards to protect civil liberties, and it is fully consistent with our nation's laws and Constitution."

Let's assume for one moment that the President is right, the warrantless surveillance program is Constitutional (it's not). If so, can we trust the NSA not to abuse its access to our communications? According to former NSA employees, the agency has adopted the strategy of attacking and discrediting internal critics.

"All of us in the group had this view of a burgeoning threat, and suddenly we were all trotted off to the office of security. Then came the call to report for a battery of psychological tests," said an operative identified as "J" in the article, who had argued that Osama bin Laden was preparing attacks in the United States. A current NSA agent, called "X" in the story, is reported to have said the NSA plants faked information in personnel files to use against potential critics.

J has left the agency. He told Cybercast News Service: "I'm still afraid they're going to screw my life over. They have long tentacles. I never even owned a computer because I know what they can do. Every keystroke can be picked up."

Okay, read that last line again. J won't use a computer because he is afraid his actions will be used against him by the agency President Bush assures us we can trust not to abuse anyone's information. If the agency's actions toward employees is any evidence, this is an institution that cannot be trusted with the ability to tap our phones and read our email .

I've personally experienced a form of intimidation by the NSA. When I was reporting about the agency's involvement in developing civilian encryption standards (which it was legally prohibited from doing at the time), I met an NSA employee at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference. She reached out and took hold of the name tag hanging around my neck, looked me in the eye and said "So, you're Mitch Ratcliffe." It was chilling, both because of the sudden invasion of my personal space and the fact that it seemed rehearsed.

There are a lot of good people working at the NSA. A lot. They are brave and patriotic. When we talk about creating exceptions to the rules that require a court issue a warrant based on probable cause before or shortly after a wiretap is begun, we have to be concerned with how the institution entrusted to operate under that exception might be corrupted by that power.

With tales of NSA psychological intimidation, misrepresentation and falsification of evidence in order to silence its critics coming out, the NSA has no standing to be trusted to operate outside the laws established to protect citizens from those very tactics. The NSA, made up of people as it is, needs to remain within the rule of law if our freedoms are going to remain safe.

President Bush is asking computer and telephone users to live in a Soviet-style surveillance society on his word he can control it. That's a lot of points of failure for our freedoms.

UPDATE: I had an interesting exchange with a friend who has, well, connections. I can't repeat the conversation, but Jacob Weisberg addresses most of his points in an excellent editorial in the Financial Times today. Here's an excerpt:

In fact, the Senate hearings on NSA domestic espionage that are set to begin next month will confront fundamental questions about the balance of power within our system. Even if one assumes that every unknown instance of warrant-less spying by the NSA was justified on security grounds, the arguments issuing from the White House threaten the concept of checks and balances as it has been understood in America for the past 218 years. Simply put, Mr Bush and his lawyers contend that the president’s national security powers are unlimited. And since the war on terror is currently scheduled to run indefinitely, the executive supremacy they are asserting will not be a temporary condition.