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Context of 'December 6, 2005: Bush Tries to Convince New York Times to Kill Wiretapping Story'

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Sometime in early 2002, President Bush signs a secret executive order authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to wiretap phone conversations and read e-mails to and from US citizens. The order extends an operation set into motion at least as early as October 2001 to begin wiretapping US citizens’ phones in a response to the 9/11 attacks. When the program is revealed by the US media in late 2005 (see December 15, 2005), Bush and his officials will say the program is completely legal, though it ignores the requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that requires the government to obtain court-issued warrants to mount surveillance against US citizens. They will insist that only those suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda are monitored, and only when those individuals make or receive international communications. [New York Times, 12/15/2005; Washington Post, 12/22/2005; Newsweek, 12/22/2008] Bush’s order authorizes the NSA to monitor international telephone conversations and international e-mails of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of US citizens without court warrants, in an effort to track what officials call “dirty numbers” linked to al-Qaeda. When the program is finally revealed by the New York Times over three years later (see December 15, 2005), officials will say that the NSA still seeks warrants to monitor domestic communications. But there is little evidence of this (see, for example, Spring 2001). The presidential order is a radical shift in US surveillance and intelligence-gathering policies, and a major realignment for the NSA, which is mandated to only conduct surveillance abroad. Some officials believe that the NSA’s domestic eavesdropping crosses constitutional limits on legal searches. “This is really a sea change,” a former senior official who specializes in national security law will say in December 2005. “It’s almost a mainstay of this country that the NSA only does foreign searches.” [New York Times, 12/15/2005] Some sources indicate that NSA domestic surveillance activities, such as data-mining, the use of information concerning US persons intercepted in foreign call monitoring, and possibly direct surveillance of US persons, took place prior to 9/11 (see Late 1999, February 27, 2000, December 2000, February 2001, February 2001, Spring 2001, and July 2001).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Al-Qaeda, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Thomas Tamm.Thomas Tamm. [Source: Newsweek]Thomas Tamm, a veteran Justice Department prosecutor with a high-level security clearance, is finishing up a yearlong post with the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR), a Justice Department unit handling wiretaps of suspected terrorists and spies. As his stint is coming to a close, Tamm learns of the existence of a highly classified National Security Agency (NSA) program that is electronically eavesdropping on American citizens—domestic wiretapping. He later learns that “the program,” as it is referred to by those few who know of it at all, is called “Stellar Wind.”
Concealment from FISA Judges - Tamm learns that the NSA program is being hidden from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, a panel of federal judges who by law must approve and supervise such surveillance for intelligence purposes. OIPR lawyers ask the FISA Court for permission to implement national-security wiretaps. But, Tamm learns, some wiretaps—signed only by Attorney General John Ashcroft—are going to the chief FISA Court judge and not the other ten judges on the FISA panel. The “AG-only” requests are extraordinarily secretive, and involve information gleaned from what is only referred to as “the program”—Stellar Wind. Only a very few White House and US intelligence officials know the name and the nature of “the program.” Stellar Wind involves domestic wiretaps on telephones and computer e-mail accounts derived from, but not necessarily linked to, information secured from captured al-Qaeda computers and cell phones overseas. With the voluntary cooperation of American telecommunications companies (see 1997-August 2007 and After, February 2001, February 2001, and February 2001 and Beyond), the NSA program also collects vast amounts of personal data about US citizens’ phone and e-mail communications. The program also collects an enormous amount of financial information from the Treasury Department (see February 28, 2006), all collected as part of the NSA’s “data mining” efforts (see Late 1999 and After September 11, 2001).
Program Is 'Probably Illegal,' Says DOJ Official - Tamm, suspicious about the unusual requests, asks his supervisors about the program, and is told to drop the subject. “[N]o one wanted to talk about it,” he will recall. Tamm asks one of his supervisors, Lisa Farabee, “Do you know what the program is?” Farabee replies: “Don’t even go there.… I assume what they are doing is illegal.” Tamm is horrified. His first thought, he will later recall, is, “I’m a law enforcement officer and I’m participating in something that is illegal?” Tamm soon finds out from deputy OIPR counsel Mark Bradley that the chief FISA judge, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, is raising unwanted questions about the warrant requests (see 2004 and 2005), and “the AG-only cases are being shut down.” Bradley adds, “This may be [a time] the attorney general gets indicted.”
Request for Guidance Turned Down - For weeks, Tamm agonizes over what to do. He seeks guidance from a former colleague, Sandra Wilkinson, who now works on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The two have coffee in the Senate cafeteria, and Tamm asks Wilkinson to ask if anyone on the committee knows anything about “the program.” Weeks go by without a response, and Tamm sends Wilkinson an e-mail from his OIPR computer—an e-mail that will later alert the FBI to Tamm’s interest in Stellar Wind. During a second conversation, Wilkinson refuses to give Tamm any information. “Well, you know, then,” he replies, “I think my only option is to go to the press.”
Contacting the New York Times - Tamm finally decides to contact the New York Times’s Eric Lichtblau, who has written several stories on the Justice Department that impressed Tamm. By this point he has transferred out of OIPR and back into a Justice Department office that would allow him to return to the courtroom. Tamm calls Lichtblau from a pay phone near the US District Courthouse in Washington. “My whole body was shaking,” he will recall. He identifies himself only as “Mark” (his middle name), and arranges to meet Lichtblau at a bookstore near the Justice Department. (In his 2008 book Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice, Lichtblau describes Tamm as “a walk-in” source who was “agitated about something going on in the intelligence community.” Lichtblau will describe Tamm as wary and “maddeningly vague,” but as they continue to meet—usually in bookstores and coffee shops in the Capitol District—Tamm’s “credibility and his bona fides became clear and his angst appears sincere. Eighteen months later, after finally overriding a request and warning from President Bush not to print the story (see December 6, 2005), the Times reports on the existence of the NSA program (see December 15, 2005). [Ars Technica, 12/16/2008; Newsweek, 12/22/2008]

Entity Tags: Mark Bradley, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Eric Lichtblau, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, Bush administration (43), ’Stellar Wind’, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Lisa Farabee, Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas Tamm, Sandra Wilkinson, Office of Intelligence Policy and Review, New York Times, US Department of the Treasury, National Security Agency, US Department of Justice, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Months after the Bush administration successfully convinced the New York Times to hold off publishing its report on the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program (see Early November 2004, December 6, 2005, and December 15, 2005), one of the reporters on the story, Eric Lichtblau, attempts to get a response on the program from one of the few Democrats briefed on it, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Jane Harman (D-CA). In his 2008 book Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice, Lichtblau will write about covering a House hearing where Harman launches into a passionate call for stronger civil liberties safeguards in the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act (see March 9, 2006). According to his recollection, Lichtblau approaches Harman and says, “I’m trying to square what I heard in there with what we know about that program.” He will write: “Harman’s golden California tan turned a brighter shade of red. She knew exactly what I was talking about. Shooing away her aides, she grabbed me by the arm and drew me a few feet away to a more remote section of the Capitol corridor. ‘You should not be talking about that here,’ she scolded me in a whisper. ’ They don’t even know about that,’ she said, gesturing to her aides, who were now looking on at the conversation with obvious befuddlement.” Harman tells Lichtblau, “The Times did the right thing by not publishing that story,” but will not discuss the details. When asked what intelligence capabilities would be lost by informing the public about something the terrorists already knew—that the government was listening to them—she simply replies, “This is a valuable program, and it would be compromised.” Lichtblau will add: “This was clearly as far as she was willing to take the conversation, and we didn’t speak again until months later, after the NSA story had already run. By then, Harman’s position had undergone a dramatic transformation. When the story broke publicly, she was among the first in line on Capitol Hill to denounce the administration’s handling of the wiretapping program, declaring that what the NSA was doing could have been done under the existing FISA law.” [TPM Muckraker, 3/19/2008]

Entity Tags: Eric Lichtblau, Bush administration (43), New York Times, House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Arthur Sulzberger.Arthur Sulzberger. [Source: New York Times]George W. Bush summons New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and Times editor Bill Keller to the Oval Office to try to dissuade them from running a landmark story revealing the NSA’s illegal wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005) that he authorized in 2002 (see Early 2002). In the meeeting, Bush warns Sulzberger and Keller that “there’ll be blood on your hands” if another terrorist attack were to occur, obviously implying that to reveal the nature of the program would invite terrorist strikes. Bush is unsuccessful in his attempt to quash the story. [Newsweek, 12/21/2005; Newsweek, 12/22/2008]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, George W. Bush, National Security Agency, Bill Keller

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

An FBI investigation into Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee, is halted by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, according to three former top national security officials. The investigation was to determine whether she agreed to use her influence on behalf of accused Israeli spies in return for Israeli support in being named chairman of the committee (see Summer 2005, October 2005 and December 2, 2006). In contrast to the former officials’ claims, the media will report that the investigation is ended due to “lack of evidence” of impropriety or illegal behavior on Harman’s part. However, according to the former officials, Gonzales wants Harman to help defend the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which is about to be revealed by a long-simmering New York Times story (see December 15, 2005). The evidence against Harman includes NSA wiretaps of a conversation between her and an Israeli agent. Reporter Jeff Stein will write, “As for there being ‘no evidence’ to support the FBI probe, a source with first-hand knowledge of the wiretaps called that ‘bull****.’” Another former national security officer will confirm Harman’s presence on the wiretaps. “It’s true,” the official will say. “She was on there.” Justice Department attorneys in the intelligence and public corruption units have concluded that Harman had committed what they called a “completed crime,” meaning there was evidence to show that she had attempted to complete it; they were prepared to open a case on her that would include wiretaps approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). CIA Director Porter Goss certified the FISA wiretapping request, and decided to inform House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and ranking House Democrat Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) of the impending FBI investigation. At this point, say Stein’s sources, Gonzales intervenes to stop the investigation. Two officials with knowledge of the events will say that, in Gonzales’s words, he “needed Jane” to help support the warrantless wiretapping program once it became public knowledge. Gonzales tells Goss that Harman had helped persuade the Times to refrain from publishing the story in late 2004 (see Early November 2004, December 6, 2005, and Mid-2005), and although the Times would no longer wait on the story, Harman could be counted on to help defend the program. She will do just that (see December 21, 2005 and February 8-12, 2006). Hastert and Pelosi are never told of the FBI investigation. Stein will also learn that Goss’s successor, Michael Hayden, will later be informed of the potential investigation, but choose to take no action. Likewise, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte will oppose any such investigation. Former officials who will pursue the Israeli espionage case for years will say, in Stein’s words, that “Harman dodged a bullet… [s]he was protected by an administration desperate for help.” A recently retired national security official closely involved in the investigation will add: “It’s the deepest kind of corruption. It’s a story about the corruption of government—not legal corruption necessarily, but ethical corruption.” [Congressional Quarterly, 4/19/2009]

Entity Tags: Jeff Stein, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Dennis Hastert, Alberto R. Gonzales, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Jane Harman, Michael Hayden, Porter J. Goss, John Negroponte, House Intelligence Committee, New York Times, Nancy Pelosi

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

New York Times headline from article revealing NSA surveillance.New York Times headline from article revealing NSA surveillance. [Source: CBS News]The New York Times reveals that after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush granted the National Security Agency (NSA) secret authorization to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the US without going through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to obtain legal warrants (see Early 2002. The administration justifies its actions by claiming such eavesdropping, which includes wiretapping phones and reading e-mails, is necessary to find evidence of terrorist activities, and says the nation needs the program after the 9/11 attacks exposed deficiencies in the US intelligence community’s information gathering process, and because of what they characterize as the “handcuffing” of US intelligence agencies by restrictive laws. The Times has had the article for over a year; the White House prevailed on the Times not to publish its findings for that time, arguing that publication would jeopardize continuing investigations and warn potential terrorists that they were under scrutiny. Many believe that the White House wanted to delay the publication of the article until well after the 2004 presidential elections. The Times delayed publication for over a year, and agreed to suppress some information that administration officials say could be useful to terrorists. (Less than two weeks before the article is published, Bush tries to convince the Times not to print the article at all: see December 6, 2005.) Two days after the Times publishes its article, Bush will acknowledge the order, and accuse the Times of jeopardizing national security (see December 17, 2005). The NSA program eavesdrops without warrants on up to 500 people in the US at any given time, officials say; the overall numbers have likely reached into the thousands. Overseas, up to 7,000 people suspected of terrorist ties are being monitored. Officials point to the discovery of a plot by Ohio trucker and naturalized US citizen and alleged al-Qaeda supporter Iyman Faris to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with blowtorches as evidence of the program’s efficacy. They also cite the disruption of an al-Qaeda plot to detonate fertilizer bombs outside of British pubs and train stations by the program. But, officials say, most people targeted by the NSA for warrantless wiretapping have never been charged with a crime, and many are targeted because of questionable evidence and groundless suspicion. Many raise an outcry against the program, including members of Congress, civil liberties groups, immigrant rights groups, and others who insist that the program undermines fundamental Constitutional protections of US citizens’ civil liberties and rights to privacy. Several other government programs to spy on Americans have been challenged, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)‘s surveillance of US citizens’ library and Internet usage, the monitoring of peaceful antiwar protests, and the proposed use of public and private databases to hunt for terrorist links. In 2004, the Supreme Court overturned the administration’s claim that so-called “enemy detainees” were not entitled to judicial review of their indefinite detentions. Several senior officials say that when the warrantless wiretapping program began, it operated with few controls and almost no oversight outside of the NSA itself. The agency is not required to seek the approval of the Justice Department or anyone else outside the FISA court for its surveillance operations. Some NSA officials wanted nothing to do with a program they felt was patently illegal, according to a former senior Bush administration official. Internal concerns about the program prompted the Bush administration to briefly suspend the program while Justice Department officials audited it and eventually provided some guidelines for its operations. A complaint from Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, the federal judge who oversees the FISA Court, helped spur the suspension, according to officials. Kollar-Kotelly questioned whether information obtained under the program was being improperly used as the basis for FISA wiretap warrant requests from the Justice Department. Some government lawyers say that the Justice Department may have deliberately misled Kollar-Kotelly and the FISA court about the program in order to keep the program under wraps. The judge insisted to Justice Department officials that any material gathered under the program not be used in seeking wiretap warrants from her court. The question also arose in the Faris case, when senior Justice Department officials worried that evidence obtained by warrantless wiretapping by the NSA of Faris could be used in court without having to lie to the court about its origins. [New York Times, 12/15/2005]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, George W. Bush, US Department of Justice, Iyman Faris, National Security Agency, New York Times, Al-Qaeda, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Jonathan Alter.Jonathan Alter. [Source: Publicity photo via Greater Talent Network]Reporter and political pundit Jonathan Alter writes that President Bush’s attempt to kill the New York Times domestic wiretapping story (see December 15, 2005 and December 6, 2005), which the Times delayed for over a year at the White House’s request, is not an attempt to protect national security, as Bush will say in his response to the article (see December 17, 2005), but “because he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker.” Alter continues, “He insists he had ‘legal authority derived from the Constitution and Congressional resolution authorizing force.’ But the Constitution explicitly requires the president to obey the law. And the post-9/11 congressional resolution authorizing ‘all necessary force’ in fighting terrorism was made in clear reference to military intervention. It did not scrap the Constitution and allow the president to do whatever he pleased in any area in the name of fighting terrorism.” Alter is puzzled that Bush felt the need for the program when the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978) “allows the government to eavesdrop on its own, then retroactively justify it to the court, essentially obtaining a warrant after the fact.” Alter says that only four of “tens of thousands” of FISA requests have ever been rejected, and, “There was no indication the existing system was slow—as the president seemed to claim in his press conference—or in any way required extra-constitutional action.” He concludes: “[Bush] knew publication would cause him great embarrassment and trouble for the rest of his presidency. It was for that reason—and less out of genuine concern about national security—that George W. Bush tried so hard to kill the New York Times story. …We’re seeing clearly now that Bush thought 9/11 gave him license to act like a dictator, or in his own mind, no doubt, like Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.” [Newsweek, 12/21/2005]

Entity Tags: Abraham Lincoln, Bush administration (43), National Security Agency, New York Times, George W. Bush, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Jonathan Alter

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

James Risen.James Risen. [Source: Publicity photo]The New York Times published reporter James Risen’s December account of NSA domestic wiretapping (see December 15, 2005) without having seen the manuscript of his book on the subject, the media learns. Many observers on the right, most notably Matt Drudge, have accused Risen, who wrote the article with fellow Times reporter Eric Lichtblau, and the Times of printing the article to coincide with the publication of Risen’s book State of War. On the left, critics have blasted the Times for sitting on the story for a year in apparent deference to the Bush administration. The truth is somewhere in the middle, according to numerous informed sources. While the Times did sit on the piece for a year in part because Bush officials did not want the story to run (see December 6, 2005), when Times editors finally approved its publication, they were unsure whether or not Risen’s book manuscript contained the wiretapping story. The editors did not see the manuscript until December 27, a week before it appeared on the shelves. One of the first reviewers of the book, author and national security expert James Bamford, writes, “Among the unanswered questions concerning the domestic spying story is why, if Mr. Risen and The Times had first come upon the explosive information a year earlier, the paper waited until just a few weeks before the release of the book to inform its readers.” It seems that part of the reason is the long, internal disagreement between Risen and the Times over ownership of the book’s contents; internal sources at the Times say that without Risen’s book being published, it is likely that the editors would not have published the article as soon as they did. [New York Observer, 1/19/2006]

Entity Tags: James Bamford, Eric Lichtblau, New York Times, Bush administration (43), James Risen, Matt Drudge, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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