WASHINGTON – President Bush signed a secret order in 2002 authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens and foreign nationals in the United States, despite previous legal prohibitions against such domestic spying, sources with knowledge of the program said Thursday night.
The super-secretive NSA, which in the past has generally been forbidden from domestic spying except in narrow circumstances involving foreign nationals, has monitored the e-mails, telephone calls and other communications of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people under the program, the New York Times first disclosed Thursday night.
The aim of the program was to rapidly monitor the phone calls and other communications of people in the United States believed to have contact with suspected associates of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups overseas, according to two former senior administration officials. Authorities, including former NSA director Gen. Michael V. Hayden, were worried that vital information could be lost in the time it took to secure a warrant from a special surveillance court, sources said.
But the program’s ramifications also prompted concerns from some quarters, including from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and from the presiding judge of the surveillance court, which oversees lawful domestic spying, according to the Times.
The Times said it held off on publishing its story about the NSA program for a year after administration officials said its disclosure would harm national security.
The White House made no comment Thursday night. A senior official reached by telephone said the issue was too sensitive to talk about.
Congressional sources familiar with limited aspects of the program would not discuss any classified details but made clear there were serious questions regarding the legality of the NSA’s actions. The sources, who would not be identified, said there were conditions under which it would be possible to gather and retain information on Americans if part of an investigation into foreign intelligence.
But those cases are supposed to be minimized. The sources said the actual work of the NSA is so closely held that it is difficult to determine under which circumstances the information is being used within the intelligence community and whether it comports with current law.
The revelations come amid a fierce congressional debate over reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, an antiterrorism law passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Patriot Act granted the FBI new powers to conduct secret searches and surveillance in the United States.
Most of the powers covered under that law are overseen by a secret court that meets at Justice Department headquarters and must approve applications for wiretaps, searches and other operations. The NSA’s operation is outside that court’s purview and, according to the Times report, the Justice Department may have sought to limit how much that court was made aware of NSA activities.