The NSA debate: We’ve been here before

June 21, 2013

The sweeping National Security Agency surveillance programs recently revealed have their roots in an eavesdropping program authorized by President Bush in late 2001 that allowed the NSA to monitor communications between the United States and foreign countries without court oversight when a party was believed to be linked to al-Qaeda.

The debate over the propriety of Bush's program played out in strikingly similar ways to the debate currently raging over the programs continued by the Obama administration, complete with leak probes, Congressional outrage, requests from telecommunications firms for protection from lawsuits and claims of the program's limited scope.

Intelligence sources have described a vast effort during the Bush presidency to collect and analyze telephone and e-mail communications that were later scrutinized by the government for desired information.

Revelations in May 2006 showed that the NSA made an effort to log a majority of the telephone calls made within the United States since Sept. 11, 2001 -- amassing the domestic call records of tens of millions of U.S. households and businesses in an attempt to sift them for clues about terrorist threats.

Critics said the agency's eavesdropping activities violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

On Sept. 7, 2006, President Bush defended the controversial program and urged Congress to give him additional authority to continue the warrantless eavesdropping, as part of a series of speeches on the war on terror leading up to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Then on Jan. 17, 2007, the Bush administration abruptly reversed its policy, agreeing to disband the controversial program and replace it with a new effort overseen by the secret court that administers the FISA.

On Aug. 6, 2007, President Bush signed into law an update to the FISA that expanded the government's power to eavesdrop without warrants on foreign terrorism suspects' communications in the United States, which Congress has renewed every time it was set to expire.

On Feb. 12, 2008, the Senate approved new rules for government eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails and granted retroactive immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that cooperated with the government's program. The vote represented a victory for the Bush administration and a number of telecommunications companies -- including AT&T and Sprint Nextel -- that faced dozens of lawsuits from customers seeking billions of dollars in damages.

A roundup of past Washington Post coverage on Bush's warantless eavesdropping program shows many echoes of today's headlines:

Dec. 31, 2005: Justice Dept. Investigating Leak of NSA Wiretapping

Feb. 9, 2006: Secret Court's Judges Were Warned About NSA Spy Data

Feb. 17, 2006: Senate Rejects Wiretapping Probe

Sept. 8, 2006: Bush Calls For Greater Wiretap Authority

Jan. 18, 2007: Court Will Oversee Wiretap Program

Aug. 1, 2007: NSA Spying Part of Broader Effort

Aug. 3, 2007: Ruling Limited Spying Efforts

Aug. 12, 2007: How the Fight for Vast New Spying Powers Was Won

Jan. 16, 2009: Intelligence Court Releases Ruling in Favor of Warrantless Wiretapping

June 4, 2009: Judge Revisits Warrantless Eavesdropping

 

 

 

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Ruth Tam · June 21, 2013