WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 - Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.
Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.
The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval represents a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches.
"This is really a sea change," said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. "It's almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches." Nearly a dozen current and former officials, who were granted anonymity because of the classified nature of the program, discussed it with reporters for The New York Times because of their concerns about the operation's legality and oversight.
According to those officials and others, reservations about aspects of the program have also been expressed by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a judge presiding over a secret court that oversees intelligence matters. Some of the questions about the agency's new powers led the administration to temporarily suspend the operation last year and impose more restrictions, the officials said.
The Bush administration views the operation as necessary so that the agency can move quickly to monitor communications that may disclose threats to this country, the officials said. Defenders of the program say it has been a critical tool in helping disrupt terrorist plots and prevent attacks inside the United States.
Administration officials are confident that existing safeguards are sufficient to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans, the officials say. In some cases, they said, the Justice Department eventually seeks warrants if it wants to expand the eavesdropping to include communications confined within the United States. The officials said the administration had briefed Congressional leaders about the program and notified the judge in charge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret Washington court that deals with national security issues.
The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.
While many details about the program remain secret, officials familiar with it said the N.S.A. eavesdropped without warrants on up to 500 people in the United States at any given time. The list changes as some names are added and others dropped, so the number monitored in this country may have reached into the thousands over the past three years, several officials said. Overseas, about 5,000 to 7,000 people
suspected of terrorist ties are monitored at one time, according to those
I personally fail to see how the President has any personal authority to overide and disregard the 4th Amendment, unless we are to assume that he has essentially declared a Stealth form of Martial Law for the entire country. If that is the case, we haven't been a true democracy for quite some time now.
I find this completely shocking, but also not completely unexpected. I've recently become a fan of the Showtime Drama "Sleeper Cell". In the very first episode of that show, one member of an American-based terrorist cell made a phone call to his cousin in Egypt to brag about what he was doing -- and his boast was discovered by the head of the cell to promptly proceeding in having him executed just because "The NSA might have been listening...". So if even the screenwriters of shows such as this already expect that the NSA is doing domestic monitoring, why shouldn't the actual terrorist expect the same and adjust their communications to secure email, secure websites and coded voice messages accordingly?
Update from SusanG on Dailykos:
In his radio address this morning, Bush acknowledged authorizing warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens more than a dozen times - and he vowed to continue to do so.
WASHINGTON Dec 17, 2005 -- President Bush said Saturday he personally has authorized a secret eavesdropping program in the U.S. more than 30 times since the Sept. 11 attacks and he lashed out at those involved in publicly revealing the program.
"This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is critical to saving American lives. The American people expect me to do everything in my power, under our laws and Constitution, to protect them and their civil liberties and that is exactly what I will continue to do as long as I am president of the United States," Bush said.
Appearing angry at times during his eight-minute address, Bush left no doubt that he will continue authorizing the program.
"I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al-Qaida and related groups," he said.
This appears to me to be a true "line in the sand" moment for America, with a president openly and defiantly declaring himself ready to continue a program that legal scholars, members of Congress and - according to the Friday New York Times article that started this all - several NSA analysts themselves believe to be unconstitutional.
There appears to be no acknowledgement whatsoever of concerns voiced by critics of the program. There is the feeling in the air about all this - and perhaps it's just me - that we are being forced to a constitutional crisis by a president who no longer believes he needs to wear a mask to court public opinion. This reeks of raw will and power.
Lest we forget:
George Bush: "If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier - just so long I'm the dictator." December 18, 2000
I sincerely hope America is up to the challenges I sense ahead. Or let's hope I'm reading this wrong.
I really don't think you are, Susan - not even a little.