A new PBS documentary called”United States of Secrets” reveals that it was a lawyer for then-Vice President Dick Cheney — not an elected official — who authorised much of the NSA spying that Edward Snowden blew the whistle on.
NPR’s “Fresh Air” recently interviewed the movie’s director, Michael Kirk, about how the vice president’s office came to authorise NSA surveillance of Americans after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
According to Kirk, shortly after the September 11 attacks, the head of the NSA, Air Force General Michael Hayden, visited the Oval Office to meet with the president about an aggressive surveillance program. That surveillance — which became known simply as “The Program” in government circles — would collect internet data and telephone records from Americans, Hayden told Bush.
While Hayden did express some reservations about the program when he presented it to the president, Bush told him not to worry about the legal issues, as Kirk explains in the interview with Fresh Air’s Dave Davies:
And he [Hayden] says to the president, “But I’m worried about the legality of this.” And the president looks at him and says, “Don’t worry about it. We’re going to go forward with this. I’ve got lawyers working on this now and you don’t have to worry about the legality of this; I think I can do this on my own authority.”
“The thing that we learned that was, I think, most astonishing to many of the people I talked to was that the regulation, the agreement, the authorization that was written for Hayden to keep in his safe — the authorization that allowed many things that have been revealed by the Snowden revelations — was written by the vice president’s attorney; not Alberto Gonzales, the president’s attorney, not over at the Justice Department, but by the attorney for the vice president,” Kirk said. “And not an elected official — David Addington is the lawyer’s name — [and] not an appointed official in the sense that the Senate has confirmed him.”
Addington, now group vice president for research at The Heritage Foundation, served as counsel and then chief of staff to Cheney during his two terms as vice president.
The legal authority for the sweeping program gathering data on Americans was kept in a safe in the vice president’s office, still unseen by an “amazing number of people” in the White House, Justice Department, and the NSA, Kirk said.
The program was “so secret that only a handful of people in the government actually knew the full scope of its existence,” he explained.
The existence of that program didn’t become widely known until The New York Times reported on it in late 2005. “We all learned about it but Congress didn’t really get in the act and the story kind of — it didn’t die but it certainly went down and became moribund until Snowden came along,” Kirk said.
Cheney may have become so closely affiliated with the secret surveillance program because he believed the powers of the executive branch trumped the judicial and legislative branches during times of emergency, giving the president tremendous latitude to protect Americans by whatever means necessary, Kirk said.
When challenged by others in the government and the press about the legality of the program, its creators asserted that anyone who tried to expose it would be responsible for hundreds of thousands of Americans who could die in the next terrorist attack.
“It was a statement David Addington, the vice president’s attorney, often used in arguments around the West Wing when others, including attorney Jack Goldsmith from the Justice Department, were trying to get legal clarity for the underpinnings of the program,” Kirk said. “He would often say, ‘The blood of hundreds of thousands of Americans will be on your hands if you try to stop this. It’s time for you to decide what side you’re really on.'”
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