In the months before 9/11, thousands of American citizens were inadvertently
swept up in wiretaps, had their emails monitored, and were being watched as they
surfed the Internet by spies at the super-secret National Security Agency, former
NSA and counterterrorism officials said.
The NSA, with full knowledge of the White House, crossed the line from routine
surveillance of foreigners and suspected terrorists into illegal activity by
continuing to monitor the international telephone calls and emails of Americans
without a court order. The NSA unintentionally intercepts Americans' phone calls
and emails if the agency's computers zero in on a specific keyword used in the
communication. But once the NSA figures out that they are listening in on an
American, the eavesdropping is supposed to immediately end, and the identity
of the individual is supposed to be deleted. While the agency did follow protocol,
there were instances when the NSA was instructed to keep tabs on certain individuals
that became of interest to some officials in the White House.
What sets this type of operation apart from the unprecedented covert domestic
spying activities the NSA had been conducting after 9/11 is a top secret executive
order signed by President Bush in 2002 authorizing the NSA to target specific
American citizens. Prior to 9/11, American citizens were the subject of non-specific
surveillance by the NSA that was condoned and approved by President Bush, Vice
President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, according to
former NSA and counterterrorism officials.
The sources, who requested anonymity because they were instructed not to talk
about NSA activities but who hope they can testify before Congress about the
domestic spying, said that in December 2000, the NSA completed a report for
the incoming administration titled "Transition 2001," which explained,
among other things, how the NSA would improve its intelligence gathering capabilities
by hiring additional personnel.
Moreover, in a warning to the incoming administration, the agency said that
in its quest to compete on a technological level with terrorists who have access
to state-of-the-art equipment, some American citizens would get caught up in
the NSA's surveillance activities. However, in those instances, the identities
of the Americans who made telephone calls overseas would be "minimized,"
one former NSA official said, in order to conceal the identity of the American
citizen picked up on a wiretap.
"What we're supposed to do is delete the name of the person," said
the former NSA official, who worked as an encryption specialist.
The former official said that even during the Clinton administration, the NSA
would inadvertently obtain the identities of Americans citizens in its wiretaps
as a result of certain keywords, like bomb or jihad, NSA computers are programmed
to identify. When the NSA prepares its reports and transcripts of the conversations,
the names of Americans are supposed to be immediately destroyed.
By law, the NSA is prohibited from spying on a United States citizen, a US
corporation or an immigrant who is in this country on permanent residence. With
permission from a special court, the NSA can eavesdrop on diplomats and foreigners
inside the US.
"If, in the course of surveillance, NSA analysts learn that it involves
a US citizen or company, they are dumping that information right then and there,"
an unnamed official told the Boston Globe in a story published October 27, 2001.
But after Bush was sworn in as president, the way the NSA normally handled
those issues started to change dramatically. Vice President Cheney, as Bob Woodward
noted in his book Plan of Attack, was tapped by Bush in the summer of 2001 to
be more of a presence at intelligence agencies, including the CIA and NSA.
"Given Cheney's background on national security going back to the Ford
years, his time on the House Intelligence Committee, and as secretary of defense,
Bush said at the top of his list of things he wanted Cheney to do was intelligence,"
Woodward wrote in his book about the buildup to the Iraq war. "In the first
months of the new administration, Cheney made the rounds of the intelligence
agencies - the CIA, the National Security Agency, which intercepted communications,
and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. "
It was then that the NSA started receiving numerous requests from Cheney and
other officials in the state and defense departments to reveal the identities
of the Americans blacked out or deleted from intelligence reports so administration
officials could better understand the context of the intelligence.
Separately, at this time, Cheney was working with intelligence agencies, including
the NSA, to develop a large-scale emergency plan to deal with any biological,
chemical or nuclear attack on US soil.
Requesting that the NSA reveal the identity of Americans caught in wiretaps
is legal as long as it serves the purpose of understanding the context of the
But the sources said that on dozens of occasions Cheney would, upon learning
the identity of the individual, instruct the NSA to continue monitoring specific
Americans caught in the wiretaps if he thought more information would be revealed,
which crossed the line into illegal territory.
Cheney advised President Bush of what had turned up in the raw NSA reports,
said one former White House official who worked on counterterrorism related
"What's really disturbing is that some of those people the vice
president was curious about were people who worked at the White House or the
State Department," one former counterterrorism official said. "There
was a real feeling of paranoia that permeated from the vice president's office
and I don't think it had anything to do with the threat of terrorism. I can't
say what was contained in those taps that piqued his interest. I just don't
An NSA spokesperson would not comment for this story. Because of the level
of secrecy at the agency, it's impossible to ascertain for the record how far
the agency has gone in its domestic surveillance.
James Bamford, the author of the bestselling books The Puzzle Palace and Body
of Secrets, which blew the door wide open by first revealing the NSA's covert
activities, said he doesn't believe terrorism was a priority for the administration
before 9/11 and he doesn't think the agency targeted specific Americans as it
is doing now.
"I looked into that theory," Bamford said in an interview. "And
I was assured that domestic surveillance was a black area the NSA stayed away
from before 9/11. The NSA was sort of a side agency before 9/11. At that point
they were looking for a mission. Terrorism was not a big priority. (American)
names may have been picked up but I was told they dropped them immediately after.
That's the procedure."
But Bamford said it's possible the NSA may have conducted the type of spying
prior to 9/11 that the former NSA officials described. "It's hard to tell"
if that happened, Bamford said. "It's a very secret agency."
In the summer of 2001, the NSA spent millions of dollars on a publicity campaign
to repair its public image by taking the unprecedented step of opening up its
headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland to reporters, to dispel the myth that the
NSA was spying on Americans.
In a July 10, 2001, segment on "Nightline," host Chris Bury reported
that "privacy advocates in the United States and Europe are raising new
questions about whether innocent civilians get caught up in the NSA's electronic
Then-NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, who was interviewed by "Nightline,"
said it was absolutely untrue that the agency was monitoring Americans who are
suspected of being agents of a foreign power without first seeking a special
warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
"We don't do anything willy-nilly," Hayden said. "We're a foreign
intelligence agency. We try to collect information that is of value to American
decision-makers, to protect American values, America - and American lives. To
suggest that we're out there, on our own, renegade, pulling in random communications,
is - is simply wrong. So everything we do is for a targeted foreign intelligence
purpose. With regard to the - the question of industrial espionage, no. Period.
Dot. We don't do that."
But, when asked "How do we know that the fox isn't guarding the chicken
coop?" Hayden responded by saying that Americans should trust the employees
of the NSA.
"They deserve your trust, but you don't have to trust them," Hayden
said. "We aren't off the leash, so to speak, guarding ourselves. We have
a body of oversight within the executive branch, in the Department of Defense,
in the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which is comprised of
both government and nongovernmental officials. You've got both houses of Congress
with - with very active - in some cases, aggressive - intelligence oversight
committees with staff members who have an access badge to NSA just like mine."
One former NSA official said in response to Hayden's 2001 interview, "What
do you expect him to say? He's got to deny it. I agree. We weren't targeting
specific people, which is what the President's executive order does. However,
we did keep tabs on some Americans we caught if there was an interest"
by the White House. "That's not legal. And I am very upset that I played
a part in it."
James Risen, the New York Times reporter credited with exposing the NSA's covert
domestic surveillance activities that came as a result of a secret executive
order President Bush issued in 2002, wrote in his just-published book, State
of War, that the administration was very aggressive in its intelligence gathering
activities before 9/11. However, Risen does not say that means the administration
permitted the NSA to spy on Americans.
"It is now clear that the White House went through the motions of the
public debate over the (2001) Patriot Act, all the while knowing that the intelligence
community was secretly conducting a far more aggressive domestic surveillance
campaign," Risen wrote in State of War.
Jason Leopold is the author of the explosive memoir, NEWS
JUNKIE, to be published in April on Process/Feral House books.