Wash. Post said Bush wiretapping program covered calls where "one party had been tied to al-Qaeda"


A July 30 Washington Post article asserted as fact that the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program -- which the article referred to as the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" -- "monitor[ed] telephone calls between the United States and overseas in which one party had been tied to al-Qaeda." However, as Media Matters has repeatedly noted (here, here, here, and here), several news articles in 2006 reported that the warrantless eavesdropping program was not limited to calls in which one party was "tied to al-Qaeda," but that it also ensnared thousands of Americans with no ties to any terrorist group. For instance, on November 25, 2006, The New York Times reported that "government officials involved" in the wiretapping program "have said that it has often led to dead ends and to people with no clear links to terrorism."

The July 30 Post article, about the numerous examples in which critics say Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales may have misled Congress, stated that the administration "had been conducting a secret wiretapping program for more than three years without court oversight, possibly in conflict with federal intelligence laws." It then described the program again while discussing a specific example of Gonzales' allegedly misleading testimony:

Democrats and some experts on the use of language say that Gonzales's gaffes are too numerous and consistent to be chalked up to misunderstandings. In most instances, his answers, or his refusals to answer, have served to obscure events that would be damaging to the administration, Gonzales or Bush.

One example involves the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which allowed the National Security Agency to monitor telephone calls between the United States and overseas in which one party had been tied to al-Qaeda. Gonzales has testified repeatedly that there was never "serious disagreement" among administration officials about the program and that an unusual visit by Gonzales to the hospital bed of then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft was focused on "other intelligence activities."

However, according to a February 5, 2006, Washington Post article, "current and former government officials" said that "[i]ntelligence 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." Discussing the number of Americans who have had their conversations recorded or their emails read by intelligence analysts without court authority over the previous four years, the Post reported: "Two knowledgeable sources placed that number in the thousands; one of them, more specific, said about 5,000." Of those subject to warrantless wiretaps, "[f]ewer 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." The Post article also reported that, according to anonymous "officials," "the prevalence of false leads is especially pronounced when U.S. citizens or residents are surveilled."

Likewise, a January 17, 2006, New York Times article reported that "[m]ore than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials," some of whom knew of the domestic spying program, "said the torrent of tips [mostly from the NSA program] led them to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources and diverted agents from counterterrorism work they viewed as more productive." According to the article, "current and former officials" said that "virtually all" of those tips "led to dead ends or innocent Americans."

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