By Charles Babington and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
John D. Rockefeller IV, a wealthy man representing a poor state, had been the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee for six months when he sat down to a secret briefing on July 17, 2003. What he heard alarmed him so much that immediately afterward he wrote two identical letters, by hand, expressing his concerns.
He sent one to Vice President Cheney and placed the other -- as he pointedly warned Cheney he would -- in a safe in case anyone in the future might challenge his version of what happened. Rockefeller proved prophetic. Yesterday the 21-year Senate veteran from West Virginia released his copy of the letter -- which when written, was so sensitive he dared not allow a staffer to read it, let alone type it.
In eight sentences on two sheets of Senate letterhead, Rockefeller wrote obliquely of "the sensitive intelligence issues we discussed today." Yesterday, after confirming with White House officials that the letter contains no classified information, the senator said the briefing's topic was the National Security Agency's expanded surveillance of Americans, publicly disclosed last week by the New York Times and now at the center of a political furor.
Rockefeller's unease suffused the short letter. "Clearly, the activities we discussed raise profound oversight issues," he wrote. Laws governing classified information barred him from sharing the information with lawyers, aides or other experts who might have helped him evaluate the information, he told Cheney.
"As I reflected on the meeting today, and the future we face, John Poindexter's TIA project sprung to mind, exacerbating my concern regarding the direction the Administration is moving with regard to security, technology, and surveillance," Rockefeller wrote.
Poindexter, a retired Navy admiral, had been President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser. After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he quietly pushed a venture called Total Information Awareness.
It was meant to sift through vast amounts of business and communications data in hopes of detecting activities that might indicate terrorist plots. But public disclosures scuttled TIA in its planning stages, with critics saying it would have posed dangerous threats to privacy and civil liberties.
Rockefeller, turning back to the NSA program in his letter, told Cheney: "Without more information and the ability to draw on any independent legal or technical expertise, I simply cannot satisfy lingering concerns raised by the briefing we received."
The letter, whose existence was unknown to Rockefeller's staff, indicated that the three briefers were Cheney, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet and then NSA-Director Michael V. Hayden. The letter said the Senate intelligence committee's chairman, Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), was there, and it indicated, without naming them, the presence of then-Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the ranking members of the House intelligence committee.
In hindsight, the letter seemed a rejoinder to President Bush's assertions that key congressional leaders were adequately briefed on the expanded NSA program and to his intimation that they did not seriously object. Rockefeller "was frustrated by the characterization that Congress was on board on this," said one official who is close to him and who spoke on background because of the topic's sensitive nature. "Four congressmen, at least one of whom was raising serious concerns, does not constitute being on board."