NY Times reprinted defense of Bush wiretapping, ignored evidence that program monitored Americans with no terror ties


A February 6 New York Times article by reporter Scott Shane reprinted, without challenge, a Republican senator's defense of President Bush's warrantless domestic spying program, failing to note reports that, contrary to Sen. Pat Roberts's claims, the Bush program has intercepted the communications of people in the United States with no apparent connection to Al Qaeda.

A February 6 New York Times article by reporter Scott Shane reprinted, without challenge, an excerpt of a letter written by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) to Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean in defense of President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, which Dean recently compared to "the abuse of power" exemplified by the illegal wiretapping of U.S. citizens by the Nixon administration. In the portion of the letter published by the Times, Roberts characterized the current program as being "directed at enemies that had attacked the United States and killed thousands of Americans" and dismissed all suggestions that surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) could ensnare Americans with no connection to terrorism. However, as The Washington Post reported a day earlier, sources in the intelligence community indicated that out of thousands of Americans whose communications have been monitored by the NSA without a court order, "fewer than 10" U.S. citizens or residents "aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well."

The Times reported in a December 24 article that "according to current and former government officials," the NSA "has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity." The officials said communications were "collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries." Further, both the original December 16 Times report on the program and subsequent reporting in the newspaper's January 17 edition indicated that despite the administration's characterization of the wiretapping as limited to individuals suspected of being terrorists, government sources tell a different story.

From the January 17 edition of The New York Times:

"We'd chase a number, find it's a school teacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism - case closed," said one former FBI official, who was aware of the program and the data it generated for the bureau. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration.

From the February 6 edition of The New York Times:

Former Senator Gary W. Hart, a Colorado Democrat who served on the Church Committee, believes views such as Mr. Cheney's have set the clock back 30 years.

''What we're experiencing now, in my judgment, is a repeat of the Nixon years,'' Mr. Hart said. ''Then it was justified by civil unrest and the Vietnam war. Now it's terrorism and the Iraq war.''

But on Friday, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the current chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, strongly defended the eavesdropping program and dismissed any comparison to the Nixon era.

Writing to Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman, who had compared the current controversy to ''the abuse of power during the dark days of President Nixon,'' Mr. Roberts declared, ''Any suggestion that a program designed to track the movement, locations, plans or intentions of our enemy particularly those that have infiltrated our borders is equivalent to abusive domestic surveillance of the past is ludicrous.''

He added: ''When President Richard Nixon used warrantless wiretaps, they were not directed at enemies that had attacked the United States and killed thousands of Americans.''

From the February 5 edition of The Washington Post:

Intelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat, according to accounts from current and former government officials and private-sector sources with knowledge of the technologies in use.

Bush has recently described the warrantless operation as "terrorist surveillance" and summed it up by declaring that "if you're talking to a member of al Qaeda, we want to know why." But officials conversant with the program said a far more common question for eavesdroppers is whether, not why, a terrorist plotter is on either end of the call. The answer, they said, is usually no.

Fewer than 10 U.S. citizens or residents a year, according to an authoritative account, have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well. That step still requires a warrant from a federal judge, for which the government must supply evidence of probable cause.

The Bush administration refuses to say -- in public or in closed session of Congress -- how many Americans in the past four years have had their conversations recorded or their e-mails read by intelligence analysts without court authority. Two knowledgeable sources placed that number in the thousands; one of them, more specific, said about 5,000.

The program has touched many more Americans than that. Surveillance takes place in several stages, officials said, the earliest by machine. Computer-controlled systems collect and sift basic information about hundreds of thousands of faxes, e-mails and telephone calls into and out of the United States before selecting the ones for scrutiny by human eyes and ears.

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