NEW YORK, Dec 16: 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 court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, said the New York Times on Friday, quoting government officials.
Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has been monitoring 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.
In a well-researched and exhaustive five-page article, the New York Times said the White House asked it 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 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.
The article says that before the program began, 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 Times 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.
PRAISE: Government officials credited the new program with uncovering several terrorist plots, including one by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker who pleaded guilty in 2003 to supporting Al Qaeda by planning to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, the report said.
But some NSA officials were so concerned about the legality of the program that they refused to participate, the Times said. Questions about legality led the administration to temporarily suspend it last year and impose new restrictions.
On Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked about the program. “I’m not going to comment on intelligence matters,” she told NBC’s ‘Today’ show. But Ms Rice did say that President Bush ‘has always said he would do everything he can to protect the American people, but within the law, and with due regard for civil liberties because he takes seriously his responsibility’.
“The president acted lawfully in every step that he has taken,” Ms Rice said, “to defend the American people and to defend the people within his constitutional responsibility.”
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the group’s initial reaction to the NSA 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’.
Asked about the administration’s contention that the eavesdropping has disrupted terrorist attacks, Ms Fredrickson said the ACLU couldn’t comment until it sees some evidence.