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Context of 'Early 2002: Bush Signs Executive Order Allowing NSA to Spy on US Citizens; Spying Began before 9/11'

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Sometime in early 2002, President Bush signs a secret executive order authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to wiretap phone conversations and read e-mails to and from US citizens. The order extends an operation set into motion at least as early as October 2001 to begin wiretapping US citizens’ phones in a response to the 9/11 attacks. When the program is revealed by the US media in late 2005 (see December 15, 2005), Bush and his officials will say the program is completely legal, though it ignores the requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that requires the government to obtain court-issued warrants to mount surveillance against US citizens. They will insist that only those suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda are monitored, and only when those individuals make or receive international communications. [New York Times, 12/15/2005; Washington Post, 12/22/2005; Newsweek, 12/22/2008] Bush’s order authorizes the NSA to monitor international telephone conversations and international e-mails of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of US citizens without court warrants, in an effort to track what officials call “dirty numbers” linked to al-Qaeda. When the program is finally revealed by the New York Times over three years later (see December 15, 2005), officials will say that the NSA still seeks warrants to monitor domestic communications. But there is little evidence of this (see, for example, Spring 2001). The presidential order is a radical shift in US surveillance and intelligence-gathering policies, and a major realignment for the NSA, which is mandated to only conduct surveillance abroad. Some officials believe that the NSA’s domestic eavesdropping crosses constitutional limits on legal searches. “This is really a sea change,” a former senior official who specializes in national security law will say in December 2005. “It’s almost a mainstay of this country that the NSA only does foreign searches.” [New York Times, 12/15/2005] Some sources indicate that NSA domestic surveillance activities, such as data-mining, the use of information concerning US persons intercepted in foreign call monitoring, and possibly direct surveillance of US persons, took place prior to 9/11 (see Late 1999, February 27, 2000, December 2000, February 2001, February 2001, Spring 2001, and July 2001).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Al-Qaeda, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

After the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program is revealed (see Early 2002 and December 15, 2005), some commentators criticize the program. Americans have fundamental Constitutional protections that are enforceable in court whether their conversations are domestic or international, says law scholar Geoffrey Stone. Stone says that President Bush’s emphasis that NSA wiretapping only takes place on US calls to overseas phones or overseas e-mails “is no different, as far as the law is concerned, from saying we only do it on Tuesdays.” Former FBI national security law chief Michael Woods, who served in the position when Bush signed the NSA directive, calls the program “very dangerous.” Though Woods says the program was justifiable in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, “[By now] we ought to be past the time of emergency responses. We ought to have more considered views now…. We have time to debate a legal regime and what’s appropriate.” [Washington Post, 12/18/2005] Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, says the secret order may amount to Bush authorizing criminal activity in direct violation of FISA. “This is as shocking a revelation as we have ever seen from the Bush administration,” she says. “It is, I believe, the first time a president has authorized government agencies to violate a specific criminal prohibition and eavesdrop on Americans.” The American Civil Liberties Union’s Caroline Frederickson says of the program, “It’s clear that the administration has been very willing to sacrifice civil liberties in its effort to exercise its authority on terrorism, to the extent that it authorizes criminal activity.” [Washington Post, 12/16/2005]

Entity Tags: Center for National Security Studies, Geoffrey Stone, American Civil Liberties Union, National Security Agency, Caroline Frederickson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In a public speech, former National Security Agency chief Michael Hayden claims that everything the NSA does is with authorization from the White House, specifically the warrantless wiretapping program that spies on US citizens (see Early 2002). “I didn’t craft the authorization,” he says. “I am responding to a lawful order.” Hayden claims that while the NSA continues to use court warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), technological advances and terrorist threats have made the law that created and supports FISC, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (see 1978), obsolete. Therefore, the NSA has carried out domestic surveillance operations with or without FISC warrants. Hayden says the warrantless surveillance operations are “operationally more relevant, operationally more effective” than anything FISA can handle. Hayden repeatedly denies, in the face of reams of evidence collected by journalists and others to the contrary, that the NSA is spying on domestic antiwar groups and religious organizations like the Quakers who publicly advocate nonviolence and peace. [Michael Hayden, 1/23/2006]

Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Al-Qaeda, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Terrorist Surveillance Program, National Press Club, Bush administration (43), National Security Agency, Michael Hayden, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sends a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee informing it that the lawsuit against the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program (see August 17, 2006) is moot—the National Security Agency will now operate under the aegis of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) in its wiretaps. One of the FISC judges, Gonzales writes, has issued an “innovative” and “complex” order that allows the NSA to continue doing what it had been doing with the overall approval of the court, or at least the approval of the single FISC judge. Gonzales does not go into detail about the judge’s ruling, but the administration intensifies its attack on the lawsuit, asking an appeals court to set the previous ruling aside in light of the new FISC protocol, and even to erase the ruling from judicial history as a matter of “public interest.” The appeals court votes 2-1 to set aside the previous ruling; the majority opinion finds that the state secrets privilege prevents the courts from learning whether the plaintiffs in the case had the standing to sue. [Savage, 2007, pp. 207]

Entity Tags: Alberto R. Gonzales, Senate Judiciary Committee, National Security Agency, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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