Sunday, January 15, 2006

Bush's illegal wiretapping predated 9/11

Last month, we learned that the Bush Administration was engaging in widespread domestic wiretapping in clear violation of US law. The response from the Administration's cheerleaders - and its lawyers - was obvious: the wiretapping was a matter of national security, an unfortunate but necessary response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Furthermore, it was (incorrectly) claimed that it had been implicitly approved by Congress in their September 14th 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

Unfortunately, there's a slight problem with this. According to a major story based on declassified NSA documents and NSA staff, President Bush started spying on American citizens before 9/11:

What had long been understood to be protocol in the event that the NSA spied on average Americans was that the agency would black out the identities of those individuals or immediately destroy the information.

But according to people who worked at the NSA as encryption specialists during this time, that's not what happened. On orders from Defense Department officials and President Bush, the agency kept a running list of the names of Americans in its system and made it readily available to a number of senior officials in the Bush administration, these sources said, which in essence meant the NSA was conducting a covert domestic surveillance operation in violation of the law.

James Risen, author of the book State of War and credited with first breaking the story about the NSA's domestic surveillance operations, said President Bush personally authorized a change in the agency's long-standing policies shortly after he was sworn in in 2001.

"The president personally and directly authorized new operations, like the NSA's domestic surveillance program, that almost certainly would never have been approved under normal circumstances and that raised serious legal or political questions," Risen wrote in the book. "Because of the fevered climate created throughout the government by the president and his senior advisers, Bush sent signals of what he wanted done, without explicit presidential orders" and "the most ambitious got the message."

If true, this pretty much blows the Administration's excuses out of the water. Instead, we're left with wacky constitutional theories and the uncomfortable feeling that they listened to American's private phone conversations for the same reason that a dog licks its balls: because they could.