Congress may expand eavesdropping review

Officials want to probe NSA's mining of broad data

December 25, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON --Congressional officials said yesterday that they wanted to investigate the disclosure that the National Security Agency had gained access to some of the country's main telephone arteries to glean data on possible terrorists.

"As far as congressional investigations are concerned, said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, "these new revelations can only multiply and intensify the growing list of questions and concerns about the warrantless surveillance of Americans."

Members of the Judiciary Committee have indicated that they intend to conduct oversight hearings into the president's legal authority to order domestic eavesdropping on terrorism suspects without a warrant.

But congressional officials said yesterday that they would probably seek to expand the review to include the disclosure that the security agency, using its access to giant phone "switches," had also traced and analyzed phone and Internet traffic in much larger volumes than what the Bush administration had acknowledged.

"We want to look at the entire program, an in-depth review, and this new data-mining issue is certainly a part of the whole picture," said a Republican congressional aide, who asked not to be identified because no decisions had been made on how congressional hearings might be structured.

Current and former government officials say that the security agency, as part of its domestic surveillance program, has gained the cooperation of some of the country's biggest telecommunications companies to obtain access to large volumes of international telephone and Internet traffic flowing in and out of the United States.

The agency has traced and analyzed the traffic flow - looking at who is calling whom, where calls originate and end, and other patterns - to gather clues on possible terrorist activities. In cases in which security agency supervisors believe they can show a link to al-Qaida, President Bush has authorized the agency to eavesdrop on the calls without a warrant within the United States, so long as one end of the phone or e-mail conversation takes place outside the country.

The White House declined to comment yesterday on the security agency program or the use of data-mining, saying it would not discuss intelligence operations.

"The administration will aggressively fight the war on terror in an effort to protect the American people while at the same time upholding the civil liberties of the American people," said Allen Abney, a White House spokesman. `'The president is doing both of these things and will continue to do both of these things."

Defenders of the program within the federal government say that the security agency's broad analytical searches and data-mining, combined with actual eavesdropping, are an essential part of detecting and preventing attacks.

And they say the president is well within his legal authority to order such programs, because of his inherent constitutional power and because of congressional authorization in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks that permits him to use "all necessary and appropriate force" to fight terrorism.

But civil rights and privacy advocates voiced concerns yesterday about the expanded role played by the security agency, which historically has been focused almost exclusively on foreign powers, in mining for data on American telephone lines.

"To the extent that the NSA is collecting information on people who are suspected of no wrongdoing whatsoever, it presents some very critical privacy concerns," said Marcia Hofmann, who leads the government oversight section at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "And it shows the need for Congress to put in place real safeguards to prevent the government from abusing this information."

Lisa Graves, senior counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said, `'There's no data-mining loophole in the Fourth Amendment." She added, `'We're seeing an administration that's engaging in a lot of legal hairsplitting to justify behavior that's not authorized by the law."

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