By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Justice Department officials have ordered changes to a secret U.S. eavesdropping program after discovering that the wiretaps were inadvertently capturing communications between Americans who were not targets of the program, intelligence and law enforcement officials said yesterday.
The unauthorized eavesdropping was part of a massive electronic surveillance program conducted by the National Security Agency, which screens Internet and telephone communications for evidence of terrorist plots, two knowledgeable sources said. The problem prompted Justice officials to briefly delay the renewal of the congressionally approved program, the sources said.
The Justice Department confirmed in a statement that department officials had "detected issues that raised concerns" while conducting routine oversight of the surveillance program. Once the problems were found, Justice officials notified the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court that approves wiretaps, and "took comprehensive steps to correct the situation and bring the program into compliance," according to the statement released late yesterday.
"Only after these corrective measures were taken and new safeguards were adopted did the Attorney General seek authorization from the Court for renewal of the program," it said. Department officials notified congressional oversight committees about the mistake, it said.
The discovery of the unauthorized wiretaps was first reported by the New York Times on its Web site. The Times, quoting unnamed intelligence officials, described the intercepts as a significant "overcollection" of domestic communications of Americans, one that went beyond limits set by Congress last year in approving an expansion of U.S. secret wiretaps. The report said the practice appeared to be unintentional.
Intelligence officials familiar with the program declined to discuss details of the improper surveillance because the program is secret.
An NSA spokeswoman said that the agency was "committed to upholding the law" and that the program was subject to vigorous oversight. "Our intelligence operations, including procedures for collection and analysis, are in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations," the spokeswoman said. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence also defended the program and the response to the discovery.
Staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.