Spying Program Snared U.S. Calls
New York Times | December 21 2005
By JAMES RISEN and ERIC LICHTBLAU
A surveillance program approved by President Bush to conduct eavesdropping without warrants has captured what are purely domestic communications in some cases, despite a requirement by the White House that one end of the intercepted conversations take place on foreign soil, officials say.
The officials say the National Security Agency's interception of a small number of communications between people within the United States was apparently accidental, and was caused by technical glitches at the National Security Agency in determining whether a communication was in fact "international."
Telecommunications experts say the issue points up troubling logistical questions about the program. At a time when communications networks are increasingly globalized, it is sometimes difficult even for the N.S.A. to determine whether someone is inside or outside the United States when making a cellphone call or sending an e-mail message. As a result, people that the security agency may think are outside the United States are actually on American soil.
Vice President Dick Cheney entered the debate over the legality of the program on Tuesday, casting the program as part of the administration's efforts to assert broader presidential powers.
Eavesdropping on communications between two people who are both inside the United States is prohibited under Mr. Bush's order allowing some domestic surveillance.
But in at least one instance, someone using an international cellphone was thought to be outside the United States when in fact both people in the conversation were in the country. Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the program remains classified, would not discuss the number of accidental intercepts, but the total is thought to represent a very small fraction of the total number of wiretaps that Mr. Bush has authorized without getting warrants. In all, officials say the program has been used to eavesdrop on as many as 500 people at any one time, with the total number of people reaching perhaps into the thousands in the last three years.
Mr. Bush and his senior aides have emphasized since the disclosure of the program's existence last week that the president's executive order applied only to cases where one party on a call or e-mail message was outside the United States.
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the former N.S.A. director who is now the second-ranking intelligence official in the country, was asked at a White House briefing this week whether there had been any "purely domestic" intercepts under the program.
"The authorization given to N.S.A. by the president requires that one end of these communications has to be outside the United States," General Hayden answered. "I can assure you, by the physics of the intercept, by how we actually conduct our activities, that one end of these communications are always outside the United States."
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales also emphasized that the order only applied to international communications. "People are running around saying that the United States is somehow spying on American citizens calling their neighbors," he said. "Very, very important to understand that one party to the communication has to be outside the United States."
A spokeswoman for the office of national intelligence declined comment on whether the N.S.A. had intercepted any purely domestic communications. "We'll stand by what General Hayden said in his statement," said the spokeswoman, Judy Emmel.
The Bush administration has not released the guidelines that the N.S.A. uses in determining who is suspected of having links to Al Qaeda and may be a target under the program. General Hayden said the determination was made by operational people at the agency and "must be signed off by a shift supervisor," with the process closely scrutinized by officials at the agency, the Justice Department and elsewhere.
But questions about the legal and operational oversight of the program last year prompted the administration to suspend aspects of it temporarily and put in place tighter restrictions on the procedures used to focus on suspects, said people with knowledge of the program. The judge who oversees the secret court that authorizes intelligence warrants - and which has been largely bypassed by the program - also raised concerns about aspects of the program.
The concerns led to a secret audit, which did not reveal any abuses in focusing on suspects or instances in which purely domestic communications were monitored, said officials familiar with the classified findings.
General Hayden, at this week's briefing, would not discuss many technical aspects of the program and did not answer directly when asked whether the program was used to eavesdrop on people who should not have been. But he indicated that N.S.A. operational personnel sometimes decide to stop surveillance of a suspect when the eavesdropping has not produced relevant leads on terror cases.
"We can't waste resources on targets that simply don't provide valuable information, and when we decide that is the case," the decision on whether a target is "worthwhile" is usually made in days or weeks, he said.
National security and telecommunications experts said that even if the N.S.A. seeks to adhere closely to the rules that Mr. Bush has set, the logistics of the program may make it difficult to ensure that the rules are being followed.
With roaming cellphones, internationally routed e-mail, and voice-over Internet technology, "it's often tough to find out where a call started and ended," said Robert Morris, a former senior scientist at the N.S.A. who is retired. "The N.S.A. is good at it, but it's difficult even for them. Where a call actually came from is often a mystery.