By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006
When he was asked about the National Security Agency's controversial domestic surveillance program last Monday, U.S. intelligence chief John D. Negroponte objected to the question and said the government was "absolutely not" monitoring domestic calls without warrants.
"I wouldn't call it domestic spying," he told reporters. "This is about international terrorism and telephone calls between people thought to be working for international terrorism and people here in the United States."
Three days later, USA Today divulged details of the NSA's effort to log a majority of the telephone calls made within the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- 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.
To many lawmakers and civil liberties advocates, the revelation seemed to fly in the face of months of public statements and assurances from President Bush and his aides, who repeatedly sought to characterize the NSA's effort as a narrowly tailored "terrorist surveillance program" that had little impact on regular Americans.
But, as illustrated by Negroponte's remarks last week, administration officials have been punctilious in discussing the NSA program over the past five months, parsing their words with care and limiting comments to the portion of the program that had been confirmed by the president in December.
In doing so, the administration rarely offered any hint that a much broader operation, involving millions of domestic calls, was underway. Even yesterday -- after days of congressional furor and extensive media reports -- administration officials declined to confirm or deny the existence of the telephone-call program, in part because of court challenges that the government is attempting to derail.
On Dec. 27, for example, about two weeks after the New York Times disclosed NSA eavesdropping on international calls to and from the United States, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the effort was "a limited program."
"This is not about monitoring phone calls designed to arrange Little League practice or what to bring to a potluck dinner," Duffy said. "These are designed to monitor calls from very bad people to very bad people who have a history of blowing up commuter trains, weddings and churches."
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales also was circumspect, though he prompted widespread speculation with a handful of cryptic remarks to lawmakers.
In a February letter clarifying his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, Gonzales appeared to suggest that the NSA program might extend beyond the outlines of what Bush described in December. In early April, during an appearance at the House Judiciary Committee, Gonzales said he could not rule out the possibility that Bush could order warrantless wiretaps on telephone calls occurring solely within the United States.
Caroline Fredrickson, Washington legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the administration has purposely misled Congress and the public about the scope and character of the NSA's domestic intelligence activities. She pointed to comments in January by Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, Bush's nominee for CIA director, who said the NSA program "is not a driftnet" over U.S. communities.
"Clearly they actually were using a net; a vacuum cleaner might be a better way to put it," Fredrickson said yesterday. "I think it is misleading what they've said, even if you might not characterize it as lying in every instance. There are far too many times where they basically play it way too cute . . . and it just makes you wonder what else is out there."
White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino denied that the administration was misleading when it described the NSA program as narrowly drawn.
"It is narrow," she said. "The president has been very specific and very accurate in all of his comments. He said that the government is not trolling through personal information and that the privacy of Americans is fiercely guarded."
At the same time, she said, the government has been aggressive in exploiting intelligence resources to target al-Qaeda. "He's going to continue to use those tools to their fullest lawful extent until they're no longer necessary," she said.
During television appearances yesterday, lawmakers from both parties said they would demand more details about the NSA's surveillance activities, with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) vowing to obtain many of the answers from executives of major telephone companies that aided the government by turning over consumer records.
Specter and other lawmakers also said they will seek to learn more details about the NSA efforts from Hayden, who ran the agency from 1999 to 2005 and is scheduled to appear before the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday.
Hayden, currently the deputy intelligence director, was named last week as Bush's pick to replace CIA director Porter J. Goss, who abruptly announced his resignation May 5 after less than two years on the job. The Times reported yesterday that Hayden argued against a proposal by Vice President Cheney to allow the NSA to eavesdrop on domestic telephone calls and e-mails without warrants.
"There's no question that his confirmation is going to depend upon the answers he gives regarding activities of NSA," Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who has expressed support for the nomination, said yesterday on ABC's "This Week." "One of the questions I want to ask is 'Who set that policy?' "
Several Democrats were especially critical. Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said the administration is "breaking the law. We all want to catch terrorists, but I am against an effort to have the executive branch monitor itself."
But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who was briefed on the program, said the collection of call records was legal and that disclosures of its existence harm national security.
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley refused to confirm or deny news reports about the massive telephone database but said NSA's intelligence activities are lawful and do not infringe on the privacy rights of Americans.
"A lot of lawyers in the executive branch spend lots of time to try to make sure that the things we did are within the law," Hadley said yesterday on CBS's "Face the Nation." "That is what you'd expect and that's what we do. But the terrorist surveillance program that has been talked about in the press is a narrowly defined program."
Staff writer Peter Baker and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.