!! History Commons Alert, Exciting News

Context of 'December 18, 2005: Critics Say NSA Wiretapping Program Illegal'

This is a scalable context timeline. It contains events related to the event December 18, 2005: Critics Say NSA Wiretapping Program Illegal. You can narrow or broaden the context of this timeline by adjusting the zoom level. The lower the scale, the more relevant the items on average will be, while the higher the scale, the less relevant the items, on average, will be.

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

New York Times headline from article revealing NSA surveillance.New York Times headline from article revealing NSA surveillance. [Source: CBS News]The New York Times reveals that after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush granted the National Security Agency (NSA) secret authorization to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the US without going through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to obtain legal warrants (see Early 2002. The administration justifies its actions by claiming such eavesdropping, which includes wiretapping phones and reading e-mails, is necessary to find evidence of terrorist activities, and says the nation needs the program after the 9/11 attacks exposed deficiencies in the US intelligence community’s information gathering process, and because of what they characterize as the “handcuffing” of US intelligence agencies by restrictive laws. The Times has had the article for over a year; the White House prevailed on the Times not to publish its findings for that time, arguing that publication would jeopardize continuing investigations and warn potential terrorists that they were under scrutiny. Many believe that the White House wanted to delay the publication of the article until well after the 2004 presidential elections. The Times delayed publication for over a year, and agreed to suppress some information that administration officials say could be useful to terrorists. (Less than two weeks before the article is published, Bush tries to convince the Times not to print the article at all: see December 6, 2005.) Two days after the Times publishes its article, Bush will acknowledge the order, and accuse the Times of jeopardizing national security (see December 17, 2005). The NSA program eavesdrops without warrants on up to 500 people in the US at any given time, officials say; the overall numbers have likely reached into the thousands. Overseas, up to 7,000 people suspected of terrorist ties are being monitored. Officials point to the discovery of a plot by Ohio trucker and naturalized US citizen and alleged al-Qaeda supporter Iyman Faris to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with blowtorches as evidence of the program’s efficacy. They also cite the disruption of an al-Qaeda plot to detonate fertilizer bombs outside of British pubs and train stations by the program. But, officials say, most people targeted by the NSA for warrantless wiretapping have never been charged with a crime, and many are targeted because of questionable evidence and groundless suspicion. Many raise an outcry against the program, including members of Congress, civil liberties groups, immigrant rights groups, and others who insist that the program undermines fundamental Constitutional protections of US citizens’ civil liberties and rights to privacy. Several other government programs to spy on Americans have been challenged, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)‘s surveillance of US citizens’ library and Internet usage, the monitoring of peaceful antiwar protests, and the proposed use of public and private databases to hunt for terrorist links. In 2004, the Supreme Court overturned the administration’s claim that so-called “enemy detainees” were not entitled to judicial review of their indefinite detentions. Several senior officials say that when the warrantless wiretapping program began, it operated with few controls and almost no oversight outside of the NSA itself. The agency is not required to seek the approval of the Justice Department or anyone else outside the FISA court for its surveillance operations. Some NSA officials wanted nothing to do with a program they felt was patently illegal, according to a former senior Bush administration official. Internal concerns about the program prompted the Bush administration to briefly suspend the program while Justice Department officials audited it and eventually provided some guidelines for its operations. A complaint from Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, the federal judge who oversees the FISA Court, helped spur the suspension, according to officials. Kollar-Kotelly questioned whether information obtained under the program was being improperly used as the basis for FISA wiretap warrant requests from the Justice Department. Some government lawyers say that the Justice Department may have deliberately misled Kollar-Kotelly and the FISA court about the program in order to keep the program under wraps. The judge insisted to Justice Department officials that any material gathered under the program not be used in seeking wiretap warrants from her court. The question also arose in the Faris case, when senior Justice Department officials worried that evidence obtained by warrantless wiretapping by the NSA of Faris could be used in court without having to lie to the court about its origins. [New York Times, 12/15/2005]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, George W. Bush, US Department of Justice, Iyman Faris, National Security Agency, New York Times, Al-Qaeda, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly

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 the midst of a firestorm of criticism about the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005, December 18, 2005, and December 21, 2005), Representative Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, issues a statement defending the operation and slamming the New York Times for revealing the program’s existence. Harman says, “I believe the program is essential to US national security, and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities.” [Time, 1/3/2006] Evidence will later show that Harman may be defending the program in return for a quid pro quo from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who will quash an FBI investigation into Harman’s alleged improprieties involving Israeli lobbyists charged with felonies (see Late 2005 and April 19, 2009).

Entity Tags: House Intelligence Committee, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York Times, Jane Harman

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Chart showing NSA surveillance network.Chart showing NSA surveillance network. [Source: NSA Watch] (click image to enlarge)The National Security Agency has built a far larger database of information collected from warrantless surveillance of telephone and Internet communications to and from US citizens than the NSA or the Bush administration has acknowledged (see October 2001). On December 15, the New York Times exposed the NSA’s program (see December 15, 2005), which was authorized by President Bush in early 2002 (see Early 2002), but which actually began far earlier (see Spring 2001). The NSA built its database with the cooperation of several major American telecommunications firms (see June 26, 2006), and much of the information was mined directly into the US telecommunications system’s major connections. Many law enforcement and judicial officials question the legality of the program (see May 12, 2006 and December 18, 2005), and many say the program goes beyond the bounds of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). One question is whether the FISA Court, or FISC, can authorize monitoring of international communications that pass through US-based telephonic “switches,” which handle much of the US’s electronic communications traffic. “There was a lot of discussion about the switches” in conversations with FISC, says a Justice Department official. “You’re talking about access to such a vast amount of communications, and the question was, How do you minimize something that’s on a switch that’s carrying such large volumes of traffic? The court was very, very concerned about that.” While Bush and his officials have insisted that the warrantless wiretaps only target people with known links to al-Qaeda, they have not acknowledged that NSA technicials have not only eavesdropped on specific conversations between people with no known links to terrorism, but have combed through huge numbers of electronic communications in search of “patterns” that might point to terrorism suspects. Such “pattern analysis” usually requires court warrants before surveillance can begin, but in many cases, no such warrants have been obtained or even requested. Other, similar data-mining operations, such as the Total Information Awareness program, developed by the Defense Department to track terror suspects (see March 2002), and the Department of Homeland Security’s CAPPS program, which screened airline passengers (see (6:20 a.m.-7:48 a.m.) September 11, 2001), were subjected to intense public scrutiny and outrage, and were publicly scrapped. The Bush administration has insisted that it has no intention of scrapping the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, because, as its officials have said, it is necessary to identify and track terrorism suspects and foil terrorist plots before they can be hatched. Administration officials say that FISC is not quick enough to respond to its need to respond to potential terrorist acts. A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company says that after 9/11, the leading telecom firms have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists. “All that data is mined with the cooperation of the government and shared with them, and since 9/11, there’s been much more active involvement in that area,” says the former manager. “If they get content, that’s useful to them too, but the real plum is going to be the transaction data and the traffic analysis. Massive amounts of traffic analysis information—who is calling whom, who is in Osama Bin Laden’s circle of family and friends—is used to identify lines of communication that are then given closer scrutiny.” And, according to a government expert on communications privacy who used to work at the NSA, says that in the last few years, the government has quietly encouraged the telecom firms to rout more international traffic through its US-based switches so it can be monitored. Such traffic is not fully addressed by 1970s-era laws that were written before the onset of modern communications technology; neither does FISA adequately address the issues surrounding that technology. Computer engineer Phil Karn, who works for a major West Coast telecom firm, says access to those switches is critical: “If the government is gaining access to the switches like this, what you’re really talking about is the capability of an enormous vacuum operation to sweep up data.” [New York Times, 12/24/2005]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, US Department of Justice, Total Information Awareness, New York Times, US Department of Homeland Security, Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, Bush administration (43), Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, George W. Bush, National Security Agency, Phil Karn

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush’s top political adviser, deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove, tells a meeting of the Republican National Committee that the warrantless wiretapping controversy (see December 15, 2005 and December 18, 2005) can be used to boost Republicans’ election chances in the 2006 midterm elections. Republicans should emphasize that the wiretapping proves that Bush is willing to do whatever it takes to defeat terrorism and keep Americans safe. Critics of the program, therefore, can be painted as weak on terrorism. “The United States faces a ruthless enemy, and we need a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment America finds itself in,” Rove says. “President Bush and the Republican Party do; unfortunately, the same cannot be said of many Democrats.… Let me be clear as I can be: President Bush believes if al-Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interests to know who they’re calling and why. Some important Democrats clearly disagree.” [WIS-TV, 1/20/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 203]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Democratic Party, Republican Party, Republican National Committee, Karl C. Rove

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Speaking to a cheering crowd of military families in Kansas, President Bush declares that he has no intention of following the laws requiring warrants for wiretaps (see December 15, 2005 and December 18, 2005) because Congress authorized the use of military force against terrorists (AUMF—see September 14-18, 2001), and because he has the power to bypass laws at his own discretion in the interest of national security. The Kansas appearance is part of an election-style “blitz” of appearances around the country designed to build support for the warrantless wiretapping program, and to bolster support for Republicans in the midterm elections (see January 20, 2006). “I’m not a lawyer, but I can tell you what [the AUMF] means,” he says. “It means Congress gave me the authority to use necessary force to protect the American people but it didn’t prescribe the tactics.… If [terrorism suspects] are making phone calls into the United States, we need to know why, to protect you.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 203]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In his State of the Union address, President Bush insists that his authority to wiretap Americans’ phones without warrants (see December 15, 2005 and December 18, 2005) is validated by previous administrations’ actions, saying that “previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have.” He fails to note that those presidents authorized warrantless wiretaps before court orders were required for such actions (see June 19, 1972 and 1973). Since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed (see 1978), no president except Bush has ever defied the law. Law professor David Cole calls Bush’s assertion of authority “either intentionally misleading or downright false.” Fellow law professor Richard Epstein predicts that the Supreme Court will strike down any such assertions, if it ever addresses the issue. “I find every bit of this legal argument disingenuous,” he says. Even many conservatives refuse to support Bush, with columnist George Will calling his arguments “risible” and a “monarchical doctrine” that is “refuted by the plain text of the Constitution.” David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, says the legal powers claimed by Bush and his officials can be used to justify anything: “Their argument is extremely dangerous.… The American system was set up on the assumption that you can’t rely on the good will of people with power.” Conservative activist Grover Norquist says flatly, “There is no excuse for violating the rule of law.” And former Justice Department official Bruce Fein says Bush and his officials have “a view that would cause the Founding Fathers to weep. The real conservatives are the ones who treasure the original understanding of the Constitution, and clearly this is inconsistent with the separation of powers.” Even former George H. W. Bush official Brent Scowcroft says that Bush’s interpretation of the Constitution is “fundamentally in error.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 203-204]

Entity Tags: David D. Cole, Brent Scowcroft, American Conservative Union, Bruce Fein, Richard Epstein, Grover Norquist, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, David Keene, George Will, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee refuse to allow an inquiry into the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005 and December 18, 2005), with the committee voting 10-8 along party lines to reject such a probe. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) had advocated such a probe, but White House officials refused to cooperate with his committee, saying they would only cooperate via classified briefings to the Intelligence Committee. However, committee Republicans, led by chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS), have no intention of allowing such an inquiry. Roberts and his fellows say they will push to impose limitations on the program. Committee Democrats accuse their Republican colleagues of colluding with the administration to block the inquiry. “The committee is, to put it bluntly, is basically under the control of the White House,” says ranking committee member John D. Rockefeller (D-WV). “You can’t legislate properly unless you know what’s going on.” The Republicans have left Congress to “legislate in darkness and ignorance,” he says. Republicans say that a new, select subcommittee will increase oversight of the administration’s wiretapping. “It provides for a case-by-case examination and oversight by the United States Congress,” says Mike DeWine (R-OH), who is helping draft the bill for the new oversight subcommittee. “It will be very consistent with what our constitutional obligations are.” DeWine’s bill would allow the administration to ignore restrictions on wiretapping merely by invoking national security, and would not allow the committee to intervene even in clearly unjustified cases of wiretapping. “The White House could just decide not to tell them everything, and there’s no sanction,” says Bruce Fein, a former Reagan administration lawyer. “And the president can still claim that he has inherent power to conduct surveillance.” The bill is “extremely generous to the president,” says conservative law professor Douglas Kmiec. “It is not significantly different from the status quo. And I think the president would be quite delighted by that.” [Boston Globe, 3/8/2006; Savage, 2007, pp. 204]

Entity Tags: Senate Judiciary Committee, Bruce Fein, Arlen Specter, Bush administration (43), Pat Roberts, Douglas Kmiec, Mike DeWine, John D. Rockefeller, Senate Intelligence Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Retired AT&T technician and incipient whistleblower Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009) issues his first press release, summarizing his knowledge of AT&T’s complicity with the National Security Agency (NSA) in that agency’s illegal domestic wiretapping program (see December 31, 2005). Klein has given documentation supporting his claims to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in support of that organization’s lawsuit against AT&T (see January 31, 2006). Klein’s press release tells of the NSA’s “secret room” in AT&T’s Folsom Street, San Francisco, facility (see January 2003) and reveals for the first time the NSA’s use of the Narus STA 6400 to comb through the wiretapped data (see January 16, 2004). The release reads in part: “Based on my understanding of the connections and equipment at issue, it appears the NSA is capable of conducting what amounts to vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the Internet—whether that be people’s email, Web surfing, or any other data. Given the public debate about the constitutionality of the Bush administration’s spying on US citizens without obtaining a FISA warrant (see December 18, 2005, December 20, 2005, December 21, 2005, December 21, 2005, December 25, 2005, January 5, 2006, January 10, 2006, January 18, 2006, January 18, 2006, and January 31, 2006), I think it is critical that this information be brought out into the open, and that the American people be told the truth about the extent of the administration’s warrantless surveillance practices, particularly as it relates to the Internet. Despite what we are hearing (see December 19, 2005, December 19, 2005, December 21-22, 2005, and January 19, 2006), and considering the public track record of this administration (see December 24, 2005, Early 2006, January 23, 2006, January 25-26, 2006, and February 2, 2006), I simply do not believe their claims that the NSA’s spying program is really limited to foreign communications or otherwise consistent with the NSA’s charter or with FISA. And unlike the controversy over targeted wiretaps of individuals’ phone calls, this potential spying appears to be applied wholesale to all sorts of Internet communications of countless citizens.” Klein issues the press release in part to give himself some publicity, and the protection from government harassment such publicity might entail (see February 11, 2006 and After). [Wired News, 4/7/2006; Wired News, 4/7/2006; Klein, 2009, pp. 66-67]

Entity Tags: Electronic Frontier Foundation, AT&T, Bush administration (43), National Security Agency, Mark Klein

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush reiterates claims that the NSA wiretapping program specifically targets only suspected al-Qaeda members and sympathizers and does not target domestic communications without court authorizations. “[T]he privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities,” Bush asserts. “We’re not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.” Serious questions have been raised about the accuracy of these assertions (see October 2001, December 18, 2005, and May 12, 2006). [Democracy Now!, 5/12/2006]

Entity Tags: Terrorist Surveillance Program, National Security Agency, Al-Qaeda, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties


Time period

Email Updates

Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database


Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
Donate Now


If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.
Contact Us

Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike