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Bush Authorized Domestic Spying
The effort, which began within days after the attacks, has consisted partly of monitoring domestic telephone conversations, e-mail and even fax communications of individuals identified by the NSA as having some connection to al Qaeda events or figures, or to potential terrorism-related activities in the United States, the official said.
It has also involved teams of Defense Intelligence Agency personnel stationed in major U.S. cities conducting the type of surveillance typically performed by the FBI: monitoring the movements and activities -- through high-tech equipment -- of individuals and vehicles, the official said.
The involvement of military personnel in such tasks was provoked by grave anxiety among senior intelligence officials after the 2001 suicide attacks that additional terrorist cells were present within U.S. borders and could only be discovered with the military's help, said the official, who had direct knowledge of the events.
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies at George Washington University, said the secret order may amount to the president authorizing criminal activity.
The law governing clandestine surveillance in the United States, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, prohibits conducting electronic surveillance not authorized by statute. A government agent can try to avoid prosecution if he can show he was "engaged in the course of his official duties and the electronic surveillance was authorized by and conducted pursuant to a search warrant or court order of a court of competent jurisdiction," according to the law.
"This is as shocking a revelation as we have ever seen from the Bush administration," said Martin, who has been sharply critical of the administration's surveillance and detention policies. "It is, I believe, the first time a president has authorized government agencies to violate a specific criminal prohibition and eavesdrop on Americans."
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she is "dismayed" by the report.
"It's clear that the administration has been very willing to sacrifice civil liberties in its effort to exercise its authority on terrorism, to the extent that it authorizes criminal activity," Fredrickson said.
The NSA activities were justified by a classified Justice Department legal opinion authored by John C. Yoo, a former deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel who argued that congressional approval of the war on al Qaeda gave broad authority to the president, according to the Times.
That legal argument was similar to another 2002 memo authored primarily by Yoo, which outlined an extremely narrow definition of torture. That opinion, which was signed by another Justice official, was formally disavowed after it was disclosed by the Washington Post.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos would not comment on the report last night.
Staff writers Dafna Linzer and Peter Baker contributed to this report.