Negroponte Had Denied Domestic Call Monitoring
By Dan Eggen
When he was asked about the National Security Agency’s controversial domestic surveillance program last Monday, U.S. intelligence chief John D. Negroponte objected to the question and said the government was “absolutely not” monitoring domestic calls without warrants.
“I wouldn’t call it domestic spying,” he told reporters. “This is about international terrorism and telephone calls between people thought to be working for international terrorism and people here in the United States.”
Three days later, USA Today divulged details of the NSA’s effort to log a majority of the telephone calls made within the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks—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.
To many lawmakers and civil liberties advocates, the revelation seemed to fly in the face of months of public statements and assurances from Bush and his aides, who repeatedly sought to characterize the NSA’s effort as a narrowly tailored “terrorist surveillance program” that had little impact on regular Americans.
But, as illustrated by Negroponte’s remarks last week, administration officials have been punctilious in discussing the NSA program over the past five months, parsing their words with care and limiting comments to the portion of the program that had been confirmed by Bush in December.
In doing so, the administration rarely offered any hint that a much broader operation, involving millions of domestic calls, was underway. Even yesterday—after days of congressional furor and extensive media reports—administration officials declined to confirm or deny the existence of the telephone-call program, in part because of court challenges that the government is attempting to derail.
On Dec. 27, for example, about two weeks after the New York Times disclosed NSA eavesdropping on international calls to and from the United States, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the effort was “a limited program.”
“This is not about monitoring phone calls designed to arrange Little League practice or what to bring to a potluck dinner,” Duffy said. “These are designed to monitor calls from very bad people to very bad people who have a history of blowing up commuter trains, weddings and churches.”
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales also was circumspect, though he prompted widespread speculation with a handful of cryptic remarks to lawmakers.
In a February letter clarifying his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, Gonzales appeared to suggest that the NSA program might extend beyond the outlines of what Bush described in December. In early April, during an appearance at the House Judiciary Committee, Gonzales said he could not rule out the possibility that Bush could order warrantless wiretaps on telephone calls occurring solely within the United States.
Caroline Fredrickson, Washington legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the administration has purposely misled Congress and the public about the scope and character of the NSA’s domestic intelligence activities. She pointed to comments in January by Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, Bush’s nominee for CIA director, who said the NSA program “is not a driftnet” over U.S. communities.
“Clearly they actually were using a net; a vacuum cleaner might be a better way to put it,” Fredrickson said yesterday. “I think it is misleading what they’ve said, even if you might not characterize it as lying in every instance. There are far too many times where they basically play it way too cute . . . and it just makes you wonder what else is out there.” [...]