Vice President Dick Cheney argued in the weeks after the September 11 attacks that the National Security Agency should intercept domestic telephone calls and e-mails without warrants as part of its war on terrorism, The New York Times reported in Sunday editions.
Cheney and his top legal adviser, David Addington, believed the Constitution permitted spy agencies to take such sweeping measures to defend the country, The newspaper said, citing two senior intelligence officials who spoke anonymously.
NSA lawyers opposed the move and insisted that any eavesdropping without warrants should be limited to communications into and out of the country, a position that ultimately prevailed, the Times said.
Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA at the time designed the eavesdropping program and is certain to face questions about it when he appears at a Senate hearing on his nomination as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Hayden persuaded wary NSA officers to accept the eavesdropping program and sold the White House on its limits, the Times said.
The newspaper said accounts by the two intelligence officials, as well as others it interviewed, placed Hayden as the man in the middle as President George W. Bush demanded that intelligence agencies act to prevent more attacks.
While intelligence agency lawyers and officials were concerned with avoiding accusations of spying on Americans, Cheney and Addington thought eavesdropping without warrants “could be done and should be done” if people suspected of links to Al Qaeda made calls inside the United States, one of the intelligence officials told the Times.
Another official described the debate as “very healthy,” with Cheney’s staff “pushing and pushing, and it was up to the NSA lawyers to draw a line and say absolutely not.”
Cheney’s spokeswoman, Lee Anne McBride, declined to discuss the deliberations about the classified program and said: “As the administration, including the vice president, has said, this is terrorist surveillance, not domestic surveillance … ” the Times reported.
People speaking for the NSA and for Hayden also declined to comment, the newspaper said.