WASHINGTON – The Bush administration rushed to defend new espionage legislation Monday amid growing concern that the changes could lead to increased spying by U.S. intelligence agencies on American citizens.
In a push to counter criticism of the new law, senior administration officials cited a combination of legal barriers and resource restrictions that they said would keep the government from sifting through e-mails and phone calls of Americans without obtaining court warrants.
But officials declined to provide details of how the new authority might be used by the National Security Agency and other U.S. spy services. And in many cases they could point only to internal monitoring mechanisms to prevent abuse of new rules that appear to give the government greater ability to tap into traffic flowing across U.S. telecommunications networks.
Officials rejected assertions that the new authority would enable the government to cast electronic “drift nets” that might ensnare U.S. citizens, even if by accident.
“We’re really talking about targeting people, directed targeting at people overseas,” said a senior administration official who was among three authorized to discuss the legislation – on condition they not be identified – in a conference call with reporters Monday. “If the target is overseas, you don’t need a warrant. If the target is in the United States, you do.”
The White House also took aim at concerns that the new legislation would amount to the expansion of a warrantless wiretapping program, which critics contend is unconstitutional, that President Bush authorized in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto called such assertions “unfounded” and “highly misleading.”
But intelligence experts said there were an array of provisions in the new legislation that appeared to make it possible for the government to engage in intelligence collection activities that the Bush administration officials were discounting.
“They are trying to shift the terms of the debate to their intentions and away from the meaning of the new law,” said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence policy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.
“The new law gives them authority to do far more than simply surveil foreign communications abroad,” Aftergood said. “It expands the surveillance program beyond terrorism to encompass foreign intelligence. It permits the monitoring of communications of a U.S. person as long as he or she is not the primary target. And it effectively removes judicial supervision of the surveillance process.”
The White House effort to tamp down criticism underscores the stakes for the administration, which has lobbied for more than a year for sweeping changes to U.S. electronic espionage laws. Even though passage of the bill over the weekend was seen as a victory for the White House, the legislation is set to expire in six months so that Congress can revisit the issue.
Under the new law, U.S. spy agencies are free to intercept the e-mails and phone calls of any person “reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States,” even if the target is a U.S. citizen or is communicating with someone within U.S. borders. The U.S. attorney general and the director of national intelligence would make that determination, although the procedures they used to do so would be subject to review by a special court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The law also compels telecommunications companies to cooperate with the government and provide access to their networks, which account for a disproportionate share of global communications traffic – including calls and e-mails that begin and end in other countries.