News & Politics

Journalists Join Suit Against Administration: Bamford Calls NSA “Rogue Agency”

Why would James Bamford, the preeminent journalist covering the National Security Agency, join a lawsuit against the government for expanding NSA’s secret surveillance of Americans?

Reason: “The ACLU asked me,” he says. But there’s more to it than that.

Last week the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Bush administration for violating Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures based on the government’s acknowledgment that it had ordered the NSA to eavesdrop on US citizens without first obtaining warrants required by law. Bamford, who writes books and recently published a groundbreaking article in Rolling Stone about the US propaganda machine, joined writers Christopher Hitchens and Tara McKelvey as plaintiffs.

“The NSA is doing something very wrong in my opinion,” Bamford tells The Washingtonian. “It’s my obligation to speak out and make the case. There has never been a time when the law has been so blatantly violated by the White House.”

Bamford spoke Friday before a House Judiciary Committee hearing called by Democrats and chaired by Detroit’s John Conyers, the committee’s ranking Democrat. With a friendly panel before a friendly audience, Bamford explained how the NSA works and argued that its expanded domestic surveillance violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Bamford says he has special standing.

“When the NSA was attacked by Europeans for helping American companies, I defended it before the European Parliament,” he says. “I never saw a single indication that NSA eavesdropped on Airbus and passed it along to Boeing.

“Since I stood up for NSA and defended their actions, I’m not being inconsistent in going against the NSA when they’re being charged—fairly—with breaking the law.”

Bamford wrote Puzzle Palace, the first definitive book on the NSA, in 1982. He followed that with Body of Secrets and in 2004 published A Pretext For War, about the Bush administration’s run-up to the war in Iraq.

He says the NSA has become “a rogue agency.”

Did he have qualms, as a journalist, joining a lawsuit against the government?

“I don’t write for a newspaper,” he says. “I write books, and I put my opinion in my books.”

The chances that the ACLU lawsuit will get past the first stages seem slim.

“The threshold is that you have to show how you were impaired by government action,” says Jamin Raskin, professor of constitutional law at American University. “The problem with suing the government with regard to NSA spying is that no one knows if they have been spied upon.”

Says Bamford: “Nobody has standing in that nobody has proof they were wiretapped. My writing has been impaired because it’s more difficult to get sources when the government can listen to anyone.”

Ann Beeson, ACLU’s lead counsel on the case, says she recruited Bamford, Hitchens, and McKelvey as plaintiffs rather than newspapers such as the Washington Post.

“We wanted to show how ordinary Americans and their jobs are affected by illegal wiretapping,” she says. “We purposely chose freelance reporters. Also, it’s a more onerous process to get publications to sign on. We wanted individuals, not companies.”

Beeson says the government has 60 days to respond.

Says Bamford: “You never know where a lawsuit will go.”