What's Bugging the Head of the NSA?

Chairman Frank Church, D-Idaho, of the Senate Intelligence Committee, displays a poison dart gun Sept.17,1975 as Co-Chairman John G. Tower, R-Texas, looks at the weapon during the panels probe of the Central Intelligence Agency at a Washington hearing. The committe also heard from CIA Director William E. Colby, who told them that 37 lethal poison were discovered in an agency lab. AP Photo/hlg

Around the CIA's executive suites a few years ago, General Keith Alexander was known as "The Weasel." Not a weasel, The Weasel.

"He'd leave the room after some briefing or meeting or whatever and we'd all look at each other," a former denizen of the spy agency's seventh floor told me. "Sometimes we'd just laugh. We knew he'd just lied to us, or been less than truthful about something we were supposedly working on together."

Now everybody in the world knows Alexander can be a proficient liar, thanks to Edward Snowden's dripping spigot of top-secret NSA documents.

Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, got a taste of the NSA director's "weaseliness" this summer when he learned that Alexander's claim that the agency's massive data collection programs had thwarted 54 terrorist plots was a big fat lie. "The American people are getting left with the inaccurate impression of the effectiveness of NSA programs," Leahy told Alexander.

When Google and Yahoo, who've made billions tracking our shopping habits, are upset about the NSA breaking into their servers, as was reported by The Washington Post this week, you know the agency is out of control.

Or is it?

The phrase "rogue elephant" comes to mind. It entered the political lexicon 40 years ago, after a series of revelations that Army intelligence, the NSA and the FBI had been spying on American citizens, particularly antiwar and civil rights activists, and that the CIA had been concocting assassination plots against Cuba's Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders.

Senator Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who presided over explosive 1975 hearings into the plots, suggested that the spy agencies were running wild. The idea was that presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, as well as the armed services committees of the House and Senate (there were no intelligence committees back then) didn't know what was going on.

Decades later, CIA veterans were still bristling, mostly in private, over that canard. "The Kennedys knew exactly what we were doing in Cuba," a former aide to CIA Director Richard Helms groused to me over a scotch one rainy day years ago.

This time, the spooks are pushing back - with media leaks, no less - against the Obama White House's suggestion that it didn't know about the NSA's astonishing range of data collection, including, perhaps, listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone chats.

John Prados, author of a new history of the era, The Family Jewels, calls the "rogue elephant" idea a "fiction."

"That cute turn of phrase got Frank Church a lot of headlines, but it was ill-considered and created more misunderstanding than enlightenment," he writes. "Intelligence agencies operated under presidential control at all times." That doesn't mean the White House knew everything the spooks were up to, of course, "but they made it clear what they wanted."

Another astonishing thing learned from Snowden is how little the NSA and other intelligence agencies know about the millions of people with top-secret security clearances working for them. We've learned that some NSA workers used their powerful computers to check up on their ex-wives and girlfriends.

Nicholas Von Hoffman, a longtime friend of mine who wrote about the Church Committee hearings as a Washington Post columnist in 1975, offered a darker potential of thousands of such people with access to telephone and email intercepts, working at their computers after hours. "Just the law of averages, X number of them are going to be crooks," he said in a telephone conversation. "Eavesdropping on Merkel talking to Deutsche Bank and the IMF "can be turned into money...extortion, insider trading. Somebody ought to be talking about that."

Peter Fenn was 27 when he went to work as an investigator for the Church Committee in 1975. In late September, he and other veterans of the probe gathered at Georgetown University to discuss "the lessons learned back then that should be applied now."

Turns out, they still didn't have all the facts. "What none of us knew on that Tuesday, September 24, was that the NSA Watch List that we had uncovered and investigated in 1975 contained two names: Frank Church and Howard Baker," a Republican leader in the Senate at the time, Fenn wrote in a little-noticed op-ed piece for the Idaho Statesman a few weeks ago. "Two senators were spied upon, and it was kept secret for nearly 40 years. This was a bombshell that would have exploded across the land back then."

What about today's NSA, I asked Fenn in a telephone interview this week. "Rogue elephant?"

"Rogue elephant referred to activities of the CIA, especially in the area of assassinations, with Castro in Cuba in particular," he recalled. "In a lot of that activity, those folks were taking oral instruction and running rogue with it."

Under the principle of "plausible denial," the spooks left certain unsavory details, such as murder plots, unspoken in the president's presence, he said. "A lot of it was set in motion with a wink and a nod." (Decades later, the CIA was careful to get approval for kidnapping and torturing terrorist suspects in writing from the George W. Bush White House.)

So the question for the current president is: What did he know, and when did he know it?

"My sense is when the president gets his daily brief, it doesn't take a mental giant to know where this [information] is coming from," Fenn said. "I mean, it didn't come from bar talk."

As for oversight of the intelligence agencies, it's Groundhog Day for Fenn and other veterans of the "rogue elephant" scandals. There is talk about getting a new round of hearings by a special investigating committee launched, he said.

It's hard to see what will come of that, other than finger-pointing between the president and the intelligence oversight committees that were established to stop such abuses 40 years ago.

"Oversight obviously hasn't work very well...." Fenn said, ticking off all the House and Senate committees - armed services, intelligence, homeland security - not to mention the secret surveillance court, supposedly keeping the spy agencies in line. "They tend to go native. There is a plethora of people with fingers in the pie."

For starters, there's Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. After months of defending the NSA, the California Democrat declared last week that she was shocked to learn that "the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed" of the NSA eavesdropping on Merkel.

Shocked? Oh, right. But it will be fun watching Alexander try to weasel out of this mess. To do that, he might have to take down a president. But for that, he'd better have something in writing.