President George W. Bush ordered the National Security Agency to spy, without warrants, on thousands of American citizens following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, current and former officials of his administration now admit.
The use of the nation’s most covert spy agency to monitor activities of Americans so angered some longtime NSA professionals that they refused to participate in the program.
Using that Presidential authority, the NSA monitored phone calls and emails on up to 500 people at any given time and the total number of those spied upon may number well up into the thousands, sources within the super secret spy agency reveal.
Before Bush changed the rules, the NSA typically limited its domestic surveillance to foreign embassies and missions and obtained court orders for such investigations. Overseas, 5,000 to 7,000 people suspected of terrorist ties are monitored at one time.
The New York Times Friday said reporters interviewed nearly a dozen current and former administration officials about the program and granted them anonymity because of the classified nature of the program. Some of those same sources have reported similar information to Capitol Hill Blue.
Some NSA officials were so concerned about the legality of the program that they refused to participate. Questions about the legality of the program led the administration to temporarily suspend it last year and impose new restrictions.
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the group’s initial reaction to the disclosure was “shock that the administration has gone so far in violating American civil liberties to the extent where it seems to be a violation of federal law.”
“They’ve veiled these powers in secrecy so there’s no way for Congress or any independent organizations to exercise any oversight,” Fredrickson said.
The Bush 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 handles national security issues.
Aides to National Intelligence Director John Negroponte and West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, declined to comment Thursday night.
Capitol Hill Blue first reported spying on American citizens by both the Pentagon and the NSA last year but The Times said it delayed publication of the report for a year because the White House said it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. The Times said it omitted information from the story that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists.
In an exclusive story on June 7, 2004, Capitol Hill Blue reported widespread monitoring by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency and the NSA through the Terrorist Information Awareness project that Congress shut down but the Bush administration continued by moving it into the Pentagon’s super-secret “black bag” operations which don’t require Congressional approval or oversight.
Dr. Paul Hawken, chairman of information mapping software company Groxis, said DARPA had tried to contract with his company to participate in the program but he declined for ethical reasons. Hawken also said he personally knew of NSA employees who refused to work on the project because it violated the law.
Earlier this week, NBC News reported it had obtained a document generated by an obscure Pentagon agency that analyzes intelligence reports on suspicious domestic activity. The 400-page document included at least 20 references to U.S. citizens, plus information on anti-war meetings and protests.
The Pentagon said Wednesday that Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, had ordered a full review of the system for handling such information to ensure that it complies with Pentagon policies and federal law.
(The Associated Press contributed to parts of this story)