Some Democrats say they never approved a domestic wiretapping program, undermining suggestions by President Bush and his senior advisers that the plan was fully vetted in a series of congressional briefings.
“I feel unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse, these activities,” West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said in a handwritten letter to Vice President Dick Cheney in July 2003. “As you know, I am neither a technician nor an attorney.”
Rockefeller is among a small group of congressional leaders who have received briefings on the administration’s four-year-old program to eavesdrop — without warrants — on international calls and e-mails of Americans and others inside the United States with suspected ties to al-Qaida.
The government still would seek court approval to snoop on purely domestic communications, such as calls between New York and Los Angeles.
Some legal experts described the program as groundbreaking. And until the highly classified program was disclosed last week, those in Congress with concerns about the National Security Agency spying on Americans raised them only privately.
Bush on the defensive
Bush, accused of acting above the law, on Monday issued a forceful defense of the program he first authorized shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His senior aides have stressed the program was narrowly targeted at individuals with a suspected link to al-Qaida or affiliated extremist groups. And Bush said it was “a shameful act” for someone to have leaked details to the media.
He bristled at the suggestion at a White House news conference that he was assuming unlimited powers.
“To say ’unchecked power’ basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject,” he said angrily. “I am doing what you expect me to do, and at the same time, safeguarding the civil liberties of the country.”
Despite the defense, there was a growing storm of criticism in Congress and calls for investigations, from Democrats and Republicans alike. Until the past several days, the White House had only informed Congress’ top political and intelligence committee leadership about the program that Bush has reauthorized more than three dozen times.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he and other top aides were just now educating the American people and Congress. “The president has not authorized ... blanket surveillance of communications here in the United States,” he said.
The spying uproar was the latest controversy about Bush’s handling of the war on terror. It follows allegations of secret prisons in Eastern Europe and of torture and other mistreatment of detainees, and an American death toll in Iraq that has exceeded 2,150.
NSA in charge
The eavesdropping program was operated out of the NSA, the nation’s largest and perhaps most secretive spy operation. Employees there appreciate their nicknames: No Such Agency or Never Say Anything.
Decisions on what conversations to monitor are made at the Fort Meade, Md., headquarters, approved by an NSA shift supervisor and carefully recorded, said Gen. Michael Hayden, the principal deputy director of intelligence.
“The reason I emphasize that this is done at the operational level is to remove any question in your mind that this is in any way politically influenced,” said Hayden, who was NSA director when the program began.
Since the program was disclosed last week by The New York Times, current and former Congress members have been liberated to weigh in.
Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who was part of the Intelligence Committee’s leadership after the 9/11 attacks, recalled a briefing about changes in international electronic surveillance, but does not remember being told of a program snooping on individuals in the United States.
“It seemed fairly mechanical,” Graham said. “It was not a major shift in policy.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., received several briefings and raised concerns, including in a classified letter, her spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said.
Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said he, too, was briefed by the White House between 2002 and 2004 but was not told key details about the scope of the program.
Reid calls for investigation
Daschle’s successor, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he received a single briefing earlier this year and that important details were withheld. “We need to investigate this program and the president’s legal authority to carry it out,” Reid said.
Republicans, too, were skeptical.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has promised hearings next year and said he would ask Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, his views of the president’s authority for spying without a warrant.
Bush said the electronic eavesdropping program lets the government move faster than the standard practice of seeking a court-authorized warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. “We’ve got to be fast on our feet, quick to detect and prevent,” the president said.
And he was cool toward investigations. “An open debate would say to the enemy, ‘Here is what we’re going to do.’ And this is an enemy which adjusts,” he said.