Sunday, January 1

More on Illegal Domestic Spying

NYT, Jan 1 2006

The warrantless domestic eavesdropping program was first authorized by President Bush in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said. Initially, it was focused on communications into and out of Afghanistan, including calls between Afghanistan and the United States, people familiar with the operation said. But the program quickly expanded.

Several senior government officials have said that when the special operation first began, there were few controls on it. Some agency officials wanted nothing to do with it, apparently fearful of participating in an illegal operation, officials have said.

At its outset in 2002, the surveillance operation was so highly classified that even Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general to Mr. Ashcroft, who was active in most of the government's most classified counterterrorism operations, was not given access to the program.

That led to uncertainties about the chain of command in overseeing law enforcement activities connected to the program, officials said, and it appears to have spurred concerns within the Justice Department over its use. Mr. Thompson's successor, Mr. Comey, was eventually authorized to take part in the program and to review intelligence material that grew out of it, and officials said he played a part in overseeing the reforms that were put in place in 2004.

But even after the imposition of the new restrictions last year, the agency maintained the authority to choose its eavesdropping targets and did not have to get specific approval from the Justice Department or other Bush officials before it began surveillance on phone calls or e-mail messages. The decision on whether someone is believed to be linked to Al Qaeda and should be monitored is left to a shift supervisor at the agency, the White House has said.

The White House has vigorously defended the legality and value of the domestic surveillance program, saying it has saved many American lives by allowing the government to respond more quickly and flexibly to threats. The Justice Department, meanwhile, said Friday that it had opened a criminal investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of the existence of the program.