December 16, 2005


Bush Secretly Lifted Some Limits on Spying in U.S. After 9/11, Officials Say (JAMES RISEN and ERIC LICHTBLAU, 12/15/05, NY Times)

Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, 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 the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the 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.

The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval represents a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches.

"This is really a sea change," said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. "It's almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches." [...]

Several officials said the eavesdropping program had helped uncover a plot by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker and naturalized citizen who pleaded guilty in 2003 to supporting Al Qaeda by planning to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with blowtorches. What appeared to be another Qaeda plot, involving fertilizer bomb attacks on British pubs and train stations, was exposed last year in part through the program, the officials said. But they said most people targeted for N.S.A. monitoring have never been charged with a crime, including an Iranian-American doctor in the South who came under suspicion because of what one official described as dubious ties to Osama bin Laden.

The eavesdropping program grew out of concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks that the nation's intelligence agencies were not poised to deal effectively with the new threat of Al Qaeda and that they were handcuffed by legal and bureaucratic restrictions better suited to peacetime than war, according to officials. In response, President Bush significantly eased limits on American intelligence and law enforcement agencies and the military.

Bush Authorized Domestic Spying: Post-9/11 Order Bypassed Special Court (Dan Eggen, December 16, 2005, Washington Post)
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 last night.

The super-secretive NSA, which has generally been barred from domestic spying except in narrow circumstances involving foreign nationals, has monitored the e-mail, telephone calls and other communications of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people under the program, the New York Times disclosed last 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 Qaeda and other terrorist groups overseas, according to two former senior administration officials.

Don't know about you, but I don't call al Qaeda much.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 16, 2005 8:48 AM

Expect lots of screaming and claims of outrage over this one for the next few days -- hey, it's a better way to try and ignore the Iraq elections than to dredge up the Karl Rove Plaimegate thing again -- but unless those people can find some NSA domestic-to-domestic telephone intercepts, it's hard to see the left getting much milage out of this one from the American public (though I'm sure the international phone call aspect of this will be downplayed by many of the most outraged).

Posted by: John at December 16, 2005 9:44 AM

Excuse me, but 9/11 was the sea change and GW Bush just trimmed the sails. I shudder to think that a Democrat could possibly win in 2008.

Posted by: Genecis at December 16, 2005 10:23 AM

"Don't know about you, but I don't call al Qaeda much"

Then they came to eavesdrop on phone calls and I didn't speak up because I had nothing to hide.

Then they came...

Posted by: h-man at December 16, 2005 11:03 AM

h-man, then they came for all this financial information about me. For example, they want to know how much money I make, how much I give to my church, how many children I have, how much money I make selling stuff on the Internet, how much money I spend and win when I go to a casino, etc... (really intrusive stuff which is all required by a 1040).

Posted by: pchuck at December 16, 2005 11:08 AM


What do you have to hide?

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2005 11:16 AM

I guess the civil libertarians, Democrats, and news media who are going to be screaming about this for the next two years would rather have the Brooklyn Bridge blown up than have a terrorist phone call intercepted. Let's give 'em international phone cards while we're at it. I'm sure McCain will propose that pretty soon.

OJ, you always talk about Europeans wanting to die demographically. We seem to be seeking an even more active demise.

Posted by: Melissa at December 16, 2005 11:43 AM

"What do you have to hide?"


Posted by: h-man at December 16, 2005 11:58 AM

Funny, I have assumed for years that the NSA monitored all international phone calls and emails.

Posted by: jd watson [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 16, 2005 12:17 PM

As of noon Eastern time, has the most blatant "Bush is evil" picture+headline that I've ever seen. It's really quite impressive.

I'm confused--are we supposed to worry about the incompetence of our intelligence agencies today, or worry about their all-powerful ability to know all the minute details about my life?

Posted by: b at December 16, 2005 12:28 PM

If the major media were willing to meet with NSA, I'm sure they could get some hard data on how badly their subscriber base is collapsing.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 16, 2005 12:38 PM


It's not the intelligence agencies that are worrisome, but their employees. Keep in mind that the CIA doesn't know anything, only people who work at the CIA know things. The problem is that those people leak at the drop of a hat, so to a non-trivial extent any data gathered by the government can easily become de facto public knowledge. OJ, as a leftist, believes in the moral rectitude and probiety of government workers, but those of us in the real world have a less sanguine view.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 16, 2005 1:22 PM

h-man: The "then they came" line is about Nazis. So, is the NSA the Nazis? Or the whole administation? Or just the President?

It is a false comparison.

Posted by: Bob at December 16, 2005 1:23 PM

As the memory of 9/11 and the public's reaction to it fades, more and more people forget that gathering information to prevent the next 9/11 is not an operation where everything is easy. Barring access to Jimmy Carter's psychic, information on potential domestic terrorists isn't simply sitting out there for all to see; you've got to go in and get it. That may mean working for years to implant people inside the organization, or using electronic monitoring efforts that can produce quicker results.

Since we've seen and heard that the CIA had virtually no on-the-ground penetration of al Qaida prior to Sept. 11, it's safe to assume they didn't have anyone there on Sept. 12 or Sept. 13 either. So the question the public will have to decide is knowing our lack of information from within the organization, was it worth Bush opting to allow the electronic monitoring efforts to try and intercept information traveling within the organization. I can't be positive what the reaction will be in December of 2005, but I'm pretty sure I know what the public would have said when Bush gave the order four years ago.

Posted by: John at December 16, 2005 1:34 PM

Good for the NSA.

I read somewhere last night wthat the Times has sat on this story for a year.

Which implies to me that (a) even they didn't think it was a big deal and (b) they were desperate to find some story, any story, so that they didn't have to acknowledge the elections in Iraq.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 16, 2005 1:47 PM

AOG: The people who work at credit agencies know everything about you--far more than any gov't employee. I have no faith in their ability to maintain my secrets either.

The only real question is whether we are at war or not. If we're not, then the Patriot Act is no longer necessary, and should not be extended, let alone made permanent. If we are, then worrying about the alleged civil rights infringements of the Patriot Act is nearly suicidal (I am 100% confident that no government employee knows one iota more about me than in 2000).

Are you opposed to national ID cards? They'll be mandatory within 24 hours of a catastrophic terror attack. Opposed to warrantless wiretaps & searches? They'll be universal within an hour of a catastrophic attack. Want to ensure civil liberties? Win the damn war. Do you think we have yet? I don't.

Posted by: b at December 16, 2005 1:50 PM

Jim in Chicago:

The word is, supposedly, that the Times sat on the story for a year while they negotiated with NSA over what they could actually publish. Which naturally makes one wonder what they haven't.


Neither. You are supposed to worry about the competence - professional and ethical - of the government agencies that have access to all of that information.


The "then they came" line is not supposed to immediately imply that the NSA, the President and/or whoever are Nazis. It is merely a poetic evocation of the concept of the slippery slope. It applies equally well to the torture issue.

Posted by: M. Bulger at December 16, 2005 1:52 PM

I used the "They came.." line to merely imply a process of gradually bringing the frog to a boil. Surely that concept of slow accretion of power in the government is applicable to other than a NAZI institution.

Posted by: h-man at December 16, 2005 2:03 PM

h-man: I think the phrase "They came.." is just too associated with the Niemöller poem to use like you did. Google the quote and you see alot of left wing articles using it to exactly make the connection with Nazis and fighting terror.

Posted by: Bob at December 16, 2005 2:38 PM

Mark Levin is good on this topic.

Bottom line:

The Foreign Intelligence Security Act permits the government to monitor foreign communications, even if they are with U.S. citizens -- 50 USC 1801, et seq. A FISA warrant is only needed if the subject communications are wholly contained in the United States and involve a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power.

The reason the President probably had to sign an executive order is that the Justice Department office that processes FISA requests, the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR), can take over 6 months to get a standard FISA request approved.

Seems like another manufactured "scandal" courtesy of the NYT.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 16, 2005 2:42 PM


Inadvertent, I assure you. I'm usually the one called a NAZI, so I guess this balances it all out where I can think of myself as middle of the road. By the way it is POSSIBLE that a leftist might come up with a good expression, Right?

Posted by: h-man at December 16, 2005 3:01 PM

"quanity has its own quality"

Posted by: joe stalin at December 16, 2005 3:28 PM

drudge is reporting that this article was released to coincide with a book that is being published. so now you know why the ny times sat on it for a year.

Posted by: toe of doom at December 16, 2005 3:52 PM

And of course it wasn't so secret either. Senate intelligence people, including Dems, were informed of it.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 16, 2005 5:49 PM

. . . including Jay Rockefeller who probably notified Syria and others on that trip of his a year before this recent war, warning them that W. was going to attack Iraq.

Don't they shoot traitors any more?

Posted by: obc at December 16, 2005 8:01 PM

Do I love you guys or what!

Posted by: Genecis at December 16, 2005 8:57 PM

You might be interested in a report I did a few years ago
regarding the NSA spying on us domestically.

It includes a treatment of how they perform Internet email
monitoring, by way of my describing how I monitored the
emails of more than 7000 employees on Wall Street.

That's odd, I seem to have included a description of
how life begins from lifeless atoms.


Posted by: George Orwell at December 17, 2005 12:16 AM


Your analog fails for three reasons:

  1. Private industry has far more incentive to be careful. Business can go bankrupt for such abuse. Federal employees, agencies and officials suffer little if anything for similar abuse.

  2. I can easily control what information a credit card agency has about me, and frequently do. I can't do that about the federal government.

  3. Relatedly, the information that the credit agencies have is already de facto public, as it involved some other effectively anonymous person. The information we are discussing here is of a far more private nature.

Moreover, I do not view the Patriot Act as any signficant help in fighting WWIV. Just because we are at war doesn't mean we should useless things just because they appear proactive. Jim in Chicago provides an excellent example of what I mean. What would be better for national security, issuing the executive order or fixing the agency to issue FISA warrants in a reasonable amount of time? The Patriot Act is a patch, a kludge on a broken system when the real service to national security would be something like abolishing or reforming the CIA. It's not so much that I feel the Patriot Act is any sort of major step towards a police state, but that it has so few benefits (if not being outright harmful due to its placebo nature) that I can't see spending any civil liberties on it.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 17, 2005 3:06 PM