The NY Times continued its war on America yesterday with its revelation that
Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.
Careful readers of the story will note that this program had some judicial and legislative oversight:
According to those officials and others, reservations about aspects of the program have also been expressed by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a judge presiding over a secret court that oversees intelligence matters. Some of the questions about the agency's new powers led the administration to temporarily suspend the operation last year and impose more restrictions, the officials said.
...The officials said the administration had briefed Congressional leaders about the program and notified the judge in charge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret Washington court that deals with national security issues.
After the special program started, Congressional leaders from both political parties were brought to Vice President Dick Cheney's office in the White House. The leaders, who included the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House intelligence committees, learned of the N.S.A. operation from Mr. Cheney, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden of the Air Force, who was then the agency's director and is now a full general and the principal deputy director of national intelligence, and George J. Tenet, then the director of the C.I.A., officials said.
It is not clear how much the members of Congress were told about the presidential order and the eavesdropping program. Some of them declined to comment about the matter, while others did not return phone calls.
Later briefings were held for members of Congress as they assumed leadership roles on the intelligence committees, officials familiar with the program said. After a 2003 briefing, Senator Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who became vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee that year, wrote a letter to Mr. Cheney expressing concerns about the program, officials knowledgeable about the letter said. It could not be determined if he received a reply. Mr. Rockefeller declined to comment. Aside from the Congressional leaders, only a small group of people, including several cabinet members and officials at the N.S.A., the C.I.A. and the Justice Department, know of the program.
That seems reasonably clear.
However, their hand-wringing follow-up on Saturday discussing the legal foundation for this program makes no mention of the fact that Congressional leaders were briefed.
And their "Mission Accomplished" Saturday article discussing the failure of the Senate to extend the Patriot Act buries quite deeply the fact that Congressional leaders were briefed on this program. However, we are treated to howlers such as this:
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, denounced the program as "Big Brother run amok," while Senator Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, said the disclosure "ought to send a chill down the spine of every American and every senator."
"You want to talk about abuses?" Mr. Feingold asked. "I can't imagine a more shocking example of an abuse of power, to eavesdrop on American citizens without first getting a court order based on some evidence that they are possibly criminals, terrorists or spies."
"A chill"? Sen. Feingold ought to ask his fellow Democrats, Senators Reid and Rockefeller, whether their spines are still chilled, or if they have recovered. Sorry, I leaped to a conclusion there - neither Reid nor Rockefeller were available for comment for the Big Expose piece, so I may be unreasonably optimistic in assuming that they have a spine available for chilling.
David Sanger goes totally off the rails in a Saturday web posting that I assume will be corrected in time for the Sunday print edition. Here is the start to paragraph six:
Mr. Bush's public confirmation on Saturday of the existence of one of the country's most secret intelligence programs, which had been known to only a select number of his aides, was a rare moment in his presidency.
Down in paragraph seventeen Mr. Sanger does note that President Bush "said Congressional leaders had been repeatedly briefed on the program...". Thanks for sharing, and caring.
For comparison, the WaPo put the fact of Congressional briefing in the second paragraph, and even attempts to quantify "repeatedly":
The controversial order has been approved by legal authorities in his administration, Bush said, and he added that members of Congress had been notified of it more than a dozen times.
My stray thoughts:
(1) This problematic overlap of foreign and domestic spying reminds me of Able Danger; might there be some other connections between this program and that?
(2) I have no doubt the Administration was very sensitive about sharing NSA programs with Congress after this intel debacle involving NSA intercepts and Senator Shelby (more here). However, the Shelby leak was June 2002; this NSA program was underway by then - from the Times:
The program accelerated in early 2002 after the Central Intelligence Agency started capturing top Qaeda operatives overseas, including Abu Zubaydah, who was arrested in Pakistan in March 2002. The C.I.A. seized the terrorists' computers, cellphones and personal phone directories, said the officials familiar with the program. The N.S.A. surveillance was intended to exploit those numbers and addresses as quickly as possible, they said.
(3) I am obliged to make the obvious Plame connection - the Times sat on this story for a year at the request of Administration officials. And the WaPo manage to keep to itself the names of the European countries cooperating with the CIA secret prison program, again at the request of senior Admin officials.
But when Bob Novak had the perilous, life threatening, national security imperiling leak about Valerie Plame, all he got was a call back from beleaguered Bill Harlow in the CIA press office. And even there, Bill did not knock himself out (although he tried harder later when spinning his story:
Harlow, the former CIA spokesman, said in an interview yesterday that he testified last year before a grand jury about conversations he had with Novak at least three days before the column was published. He said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson's wife had not authorized the mission and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed.
Harlow said that after Novak's call, he checked Plame's status and confirmed that she was an undercover operative. He said he called Novak back to repeat that the story Novak had related to him was wrong and that Plame's name should not be used. But he did not tell Novak directly that she was undercover because that was classified.
In a column published Oct. 1, 2003, Novak wrote that the CIA official he spoke to "asked me not to use her name, saying she probably never again will be given a foreign assignment but that exposure of her name might cause 'difficulties' if she travels abroad. He never suggested to me that Wilson's wife or anybody else would be endangered. If he had, I would not have used her name."
Comic emphasis added. Look, when my son buys new shirts he gets the largest size in the kids section, but I don't tell people he wears the largest shirts.
Too cryptic? OK, please, PLEASE tell me why Harlow could not have said either of the following:
"Bob, please stay on the line; DCI Tenet will be picking up to explain to you why we would not like to see anything published about Ms, Plame.
Or, "Bob, let me just double-check - your editor is still Steve Huntley of the Sun-Times, yes? Please ask him to expect a call from DCI Tenet."
That did not happen. Yet folks within the Adminisatration were able to get results wuth both the CIA secret prison story and the NSA story. I just wonder why.