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NSA Case Plaintiff and Author James Bamford


Joining us now is one of the plaintiffs involved in the ACLU case. He's James Bamford. He's author of two books about the NSA, including "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the ULTRA-Secret National Security Agency."

Mr. Bamford, thanks for being with us.

Mr. JAMES BAMFORD (Author, "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency"): My pleasure, Michele.

NORRIS: Now do you believe that the NSA actually listened to some of your phone calls or monitored your e-mails?

Mr. BAMFORD: I think it's possible. The problem is nobody knows because the one firewall that previously existed between the NSA and the American public and me, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, has been removed.

NORRIS: But I just want to clarify something. The plaintiffs in the ACLU suit include individuals or organizations that make frequent overseas phone calls, send e-mail overseas. Do these groups or these organizations believe that they were singled out in this domestic spying program, or is this lawsuit intended to make a larger point?

Mr. BAMFORD: No, I think there are key aspects that would indicate that maybe in their vacuum-cleaner approach to eavesdropping, that our communications were picked up or even targeted, for all we know since--now that the court is being gone around, that they could be eavesdropping on us very well in the United States, and there's no check and balance.

NORRIS: It seems like there's a suspicion or a belief that the government may have been doing this, but no hard evidence. How do you build a case on a belief or a suspicion?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, that's up to the lawyers. Again, I'm a plaintiff. My job is writing books and writing articles about the US government. And so I think the value of this lawsuit is, number one, to let the courts possibly decide whether or not they should probe deeper into NSA to find out who's been eavesdropped on and who hasn't. A second reason here is that the operation is still ongoing, and you have a current violation of a criminal statute. So this could also possibly lead to an injunction, forcing them to stop it. Now the FBI...

NORRIS: Now we...

Mr. BAMFORD: ...has not taken any action.

NORRIS: ...should say that you say this is a violation of a criminal statute. The administration, no doubt, would take issue and umbrage with that statement. They say that this is well within the president's right and his authority.

Mr. BAMFORD: It's a clear violation of the law. If you read the law, he may think that he has some inherent authority. But if you read the history of this act, the legislative history, you can see where the attorney general at the time, Griffin Bell, testified about the bill before the House Intelligence Committee, and what he said was that this bill eliminates the issue of whether a president has an inherent right to do electronic eavesdropping. He said, `This will be the exclusive means by which Americans will be eavesdropped on for national security purposes.'

NORRIS: But that's not--it's two very different readings of the statute. The White House believes that the president does have the authority. Do you face a bit of an uphill battle there in trying to pull the federal courts into this in trying to determine the boundaries or the limits on presidential authority?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, that's exactly where it should be. You know, it's the Congress that makes the laws. It's the executive branch and the president who execute the laws. And it's the judicial branch who decide what the laws--whether the laws have been violated and how the laws should be interpreted. So I think that's the proper forum for this to go to.

NORRIS: Filing a lawsuit against the federal government is no small thing. Why did you decide to sign on to this lawsuit, and what sort of calculus did you have to go through to make that decision?

Mr. BAMFORD: Well, the reason I decided to join the lawsuit is I've written about NSA for nearly a quarter of a century, and in the past when I've seen that NSA has been accused, what I thought was accused wrongly, of eavesdropping. I came to their defense. So, I mean, I'll be proactive when I think NSA's being accused wrongly, and as an expert on NSA, I'll come out and express my views, and same thing when I think NSA is doing something wrong. When they're going back to the bad old ways of what they did before, I'll come out and express my views any way I can this way also. So I'm a critic of the NSA when I find it doing something wrong, and I'm a booster of the NSA when I find it doing something right.

NORRIS: James Bamford, thanks for talking to us.

Mr. BAMFORD: Thank you, Michele. Appreciate it.

NORRIS: James Bamford is author of "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the ULTRA-Secret National Security Agency." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.