Bush Administration's Warrantless Wiretapping Program

Tuesday, February 12, 2008; 4:37 PM

President Bush authorized a surveillance program in late 2001, allowing the NSA to monitor communications between the United States and foreign countries without court oversight when a party is believed to be linked to al-Qaeda. Administration officials have recently acknowledged that the NSA program was broader, and intelligence sources have described a vast effort to collect and analyze telephone and e-mail communications that were later scrutinized by the government for desired information. There have been fierce disagreements about the program's legality. Critics say the agency's eavesdropping activities violate the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), when "there is probable cause to believe" that one of the parties is a member of a terrorist group.

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.

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.

On Jan. 17, 2007, the Bush administration announced an abrupt reversal to its policy, agreeing to disband the controversial program run by the National Security Agency that it had staunchly defended, to 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 expands the government's power to eavesdrop without warrants on foreign terrorism suspects' communications in the United States. It will expire in six months unless Congress renews it.

During U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey's October 2007 confirmation hearing, his views on warantless wiretapping because a point of contention. Mukasey alarmed many Democrats by testifying that there may be occasions when the president's powers as commander in chief could override a federal law requiring that a special court approve intelligence-related wiretaps, such as those used by the NSA.

As the existing legislation under the Protect America Act nears its expiration date at the end of January 2008, pressure between the White House and Congressional Democratic leaders is heating up. The White House and Republicans want the temporary surveillance law made permanent. But many Democrats, spurred on by objections from civil liberties and liberal groups, reject the administration's demand to add legal immunity for telephone companies. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), has repeatedly asked the White House for an additional 30 days to come up with a new surveillance bill. The White House has threatened to veto the measure.

On Feb. 12, 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 face dozens of lawsuits from customers seeking billions of dollars in damages.

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