NSA Spying Part of Broader Effort
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
The Bush administration's chief intelligence official said yesterday that President Bush authorized a series of secret surveillance activities under a single executive order in late 2001. The disclosure makes clear that a controversial National Security Agency program was part of a much broader operation than the president previously described.
The disclosure by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, appears to be the first time that the administration has publicly acknowledged that Bush's order included undisclosed activities beyond the warrantless surveillance of e-mails and phone calls that Bush confirmed in December 2005.
In a letter to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), McConnell wrote that the executive order following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks included "a number of . . . intelligence activities" and that a name routinely used by the administration -- the Terrorist Surveillance Program -- applied only to "one particular aspect of these activities, and nothing more."
"This is the only aspect of the NSA activities that can be discussed publicly, because it is the only aspect of those various activities whose existence has been officially acknowledged," McConnell said.
The program that Bush announced was put under a court's supervision in January, but the administration now wants congressional approval to do much of the same surveillance without a court order.
McConnell's letter was aimed at defending Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales from allegations by Democrats that he may have committed perjury by telling Congress that no legal objections were raised about the TSP. Gonzales said a legal fight in early 2004 was focused on "other intelligence activities" than those confirmed by Bush, but he never connected those to Bush's executive order.
But in doing so, McConnell's letter also underscored that the full scope of the NSA's surveillance program under Bush's order has not been revealed. The TSP described by Bush and his aides allowed the interception of communication between the United States and other countries where one party is believed to be tied to al-Qaeda, so other types of communication or data are presumably being collected under the parts of the wider NSA program that remain hidden.
News reports over the past 20 months have detailed a range of activities linked to the program, including the use of data mining to identify surveillance targets and the participation of telecommunication companies in turning over millions of phone records. The administration has not publicly confirmed such reports.
A spokesman for McConnell declined to elaborate on the letter. The Justice Department also declined to comment.
Specter was noncommittal yesterday on whether McConnell's explanation resolved his questions about the accuracy of Gonzales's previous testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Specter is the ranking Republican. Specter said he was waiting for a separate letter from the attorney general to provide additional clarification.
"If he doesn't have a plausible explanation, then he hasn't leveled with the committee," Specter said on CNN. Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that "the department will continue to work with Senator Specter to address his concerns" but declined to comment further.
McConnell's letter leaves maneuvering room for both sides in the political fracas over whether Gonzales has been truthful in his testimony. On the one hand, the NSA was clearly engaged in activities that were distinct enough to require different "legal bases" authorizing their use, according to McConnell's account.