Decades before Snowden, this American patriot waged war against illegal surveillance in the US

In the 1970s, US Army Captain Christopher Pyle blew the lid on government agencies’ domestic spying

In 1970, a US Army captain went rogue after he discovered that the military was conducting surveillance on dissidents across the country, thus sparking the first effort in modern times to tame US intelligence.

In 1968, almost half a century before the world heard the name of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who blew the whistle on a US-run global surveillance system, Christopher Pyle, an Army captain who taught law at the Army’s intelligence school at Fort Holabird, Maryland, was about to do something no less memorable.

After Pyle had concluded one of his popular lectures on civil disorder, which focused on how the military could better quell riots in those highly volatile times, a military officer directly involved in such operations approached him with the request for a meeting. Several days later, Pyle was escorted into a large warehouse facility that once had been used to assemble railroad engines. In his 2006 book, No Place to Hide, Robert O’Harrow described what happened next.

“Pyle walked into the cage, where an officer showed him books containing mug shots. He looked in the first volume and saw a familiar face. It was Ralph David Abernathy, Martin Luther King’s assistant. Officers called the books the ‘black list.’”

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“Outside the cage, Pyle saw more than a dozen teletype machines. The head of the CONUS [acronym for Continental United States] intelligence section told him they were spitting out reports from some fifteen hundred Army operatives about demonstrations with twenty people or more. Pyle was starting to understand how naive he’d been. He began formulating a plan. He would be getting out of the Army soon. He could tell the world about what was going on. When he joined the Army he took an oath to defend the country against all enemies, here and abroad. In his mind now, that included the Army’s intelligence operation. They turned in their security badges and left the building.”

And thus was born one of the most consequential whistleblowers of the post-World War II era.

In January 1970, Pyle, now a full-fledged private citizen, penned an article for the Washington Monthly entitled, ‘CONUS Intelligence: The Army Watches Civilian Politics.’ The explosive opening paragraph said it all: “[t]he U.S. Army has been closely watching civilian political activity within the United States. Nearly 1,000 plainclothes investigators … keep track of political protests of all kinds – from Klan rallies in North Carolina to anti-war speeches at Harvard.”

Immediately, some US media swung into action as journalists began hounding the Department of Defense and the US Army to determine the veracity of the claims. Given Pyle’s extreme proximity to the subject matter at hand, however, it soon became clear that Uncle Sam got caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar.

Pyle’s revelations were enough to prompt Congress, as well as a slew of litigation lawyers, to sit up and take notice. The chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Senator Samuel James Ervin, a self-described “country lawyer” from North Carolina, worked together with Pyle to investigate and expose the clandestine domestic spying program.

Pyle and Ervin eventually spent countless hours delivering testimony before various congressional meetings over a span of several years. The first fruit of their labors came with passage of the Privacy Act of 1974. Signed into law by President Gerald R. Ford on December 31, 1974, the legislation states: “No agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains…” In other words, although the law didn’t actually stop the US Army or intelligence agencies from infiltrating civil action groups and public demonstrations, it did hamper the feds from disclosing the identities of the activists without their foreknowledge.

To this end, Pyle served as a consultant for three Congressional committees: the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights on the Judiciary Committee (1971-1974), the Committee on Government Operations (1974), and the Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (1975).

According to Pyle, as a result of those successful investigations, “the entire US Army Intelligence Command was abolished and all of its files were burned.” For his actions, Pyle ended up on then-President Richard Nixon’s notorious “Enemies List.”

Given the severity of their overall findings, however, the congressional investigations triggered by the US Army captain did not stop there.

1975, the ‘Year of Intelligence’  

On January 27, 1975, by a vote of 82 to 4, the US Senate created the so-called Church Committee, chaired by Democrat Senator Frank Church, to further examine abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The House carried out its own set of investigations with the Pike Commission and the Rockefeller Commission, thereby prompting the media to label 1975 as the ‘Year of Intelligence,’ and not in a way that was flattering to the intelligence community.

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Pyle lent his expertise to the ambitious Church Committee, headed by Iowa Senator Frank Church, which discovered a number of questionable, unethical and outright illegal activities by the CIA between 1959 and 1973. Detailed in a series of reports dubbed the ‘Family Jewels‘, these activities included conducting physical surveillance on journalists, amassing files on nearly 10,000 Americans connected to the antiwar movement, funding behavior modification research on unwitting subjects, and plots to assassinate foreign leaders, including Cuban President Fidel Castro and DR Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba.

The most impactful discovery made by the Church Committee, however, was that of Project SHAMROCK. Started in 1940 during World War II and running into the 1970s, the NSA was given secret authority to access all incoming, outgoing, and transiting telegrams via the Western Union and its associates RCA and ITT. At the peak of Project SHAMROCK, 150,000 messages were captured and analyzed by NSA personnel in a month. The pertinent information contained in these messages was then forwarded to other intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI, Secret Service and the Department of Defense. This formed the basis of the so-called ‘Watch List’ of the 1970s that included thousands of American citizens, including high-ranking politicians, celebrities, academics and antiwar activists.

The findings led Senator Frank Church to conclude that Project SHAMROCK was “probably the largest government interception program affecting Americans ever undertaken.”

Based on the recommendations of the Church Committee, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. Under FISA, the government is required to obtain warrants to conduct electronic surveillance against individuals from a special court. Such a warrant requires “probable cause to believe” that the surveillance target is a foreign government or organization, or an agent thereof, “engaging in clandestine intelligence activities or international terrorism,” as per a Department of Justice (DOJ) clarification.

Yet, as we shall see, even this minor legislative hurdle would prove too cumbersome for the Bush administration in its war on terror.

Privacy in the age of terrorism

The tireless work of the Church Commission was put to a test in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as US lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle were prepared to sacrifice citizens’ privacy in the name of national security. Thus, less than one week after three hijacked aircraft toppled the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, killing some 3,000 people in the process, one of the most comprehensive plans for conducting surveillance on American civilians and individuals worldwide – the USA PATRIOT ACT (an acronym for ‘Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act’) – was already being disseminated to members of Congress.

Arguably the most controversial part of the Patriot Act is contained in Section 215 of the 342-page document, which calls for sweeping government powers against private and public enterprises, individuals, and personal privacy. Most crucially, Section 215 did away with the requirement that the target of the records search be a non-US citizen and “an agent of a foreign power.” American citizens were now legitimate targets as well.

In the Senate, the Patriot Act passed in a 99 – 1 vote. The only senator to vote against it was Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold. “There is no doubt,” he declared on the Senate floor before the historic vote, “that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists…But that would not be a country in which we would want to live.”

Even with this widening of surveillance powers, then-US President George W. Bush, as part of the global ‘War on Terror’ that he declared following the events of 9/11, ordered the NSA to tap the communications of an untold number of people in the US, including citizens, without the warrants demanded by the FISA court – despite the fact that between 1979 and 2005, only four out of over 15,000 warrant requests were rejected by the FISA court.

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Christopher Pyle, who was still committed to his cause over 30 years after he chose to become a whistleblower, labeled Bush “a criminal” for violating the FISA law and suggested that he should be impeached.

“The Constitution says he must take care that all laws be faithfully executed, not just the ones he likes,” Pyle said during an interview with Democracy Now in 2005. “The statute says … that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is the exclusive law governing these international intercepts, and he violated it anyway. And the law also says that any person who violates that law is guilty of a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. By the plain meaning of the law, the President is a criminal.”

More recently, Christopher Pyle, 83, who now works as Professor Emeritus of Politics at Mount Holyoke College, spoke out on behalf of Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor turned whistleblower who revealed a massive global intelligence program run by the so-called Five Eyes, a once-secretive intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“He’s just an ordinary American,” Pyle explained in 2013. “He’s trying to start a debate in this nation over something that is critically important. He should be respected for that and taken at face value and we should move on to the big issues, including the corruption of our system that is done by massive secrecy and by massive amounts of money and politics.”


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