Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible “dirty numbers” linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.
While many details about the program remain secret, officials familiar with it say the N.S.A. eavesdrops without warrants on up to 500 people in the United States at any given time. The list changes as some names are added and others dropped, so the number monitored in this country may have reached into the thousands since the program began, several officials said. Overseas, about 5,000 to 7,000 people suspected of terrorist ties are monitored at one time, according to those officials.
This is the big story of the day, and it deserves a lot of attention, but unless and until the abuse of the authority is revealed, it ought not to be a controversial story.
If an American citizen is talking to an al Qaeda operative –whether or not the citizen knows he or she is tangled up with a terrorist– I want the government listening in.
Why the intense interest?
“This is really a sea change,” said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. “It’s almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches.”
If the NSA was directed to do so, it could listen in to almost every American exchange of information and probe the privacy of every home. It is that good, and its technology that advanced.
It has been prohibited from doing so without a warrant, and that prohibition has been lifted in the category of contacts with al Qaeda:
Under the agency’s longstanding rules, the N.S.A. can target for interception phone calls or e-mail messages on foreign soil, even if the recipients of those communications are in the United States. Usually, though, the government can only target phones and e-mail messages in the United States by first obtaining a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which holds its closed sessions at the Justice Department.
There is controversy around the publication of the story, and there should be.
There is no prohibition on publication, of course, and it was the right of the newspaper to run the story.
It was scrurrilous to do so, and the paper has clearly alerted terrorists to the news that the US has dropped one of the standard operating procedures that al Qaeda may have believed continued to protect them:
The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.
Bill Keller, the editor of the paper, wrote for the paper’s magazine before his promotion. One of his articles, “Nuclear Nightmares,” was a chilling look at the worst case scenarios. Some key paragraphs:
All Sept. 11 did was turn a theoretical possibility into a felt danger. All it did was supply a credible cast of characters who hate us so much they would thrill to the prospect of actually doing it — and, most important in rethinking the probabilities, would be happy to die in the effort. All it did was give our nightmares legs.
And of the many nightmares animated by the attacks, this is the one with pride of place in our experience and literature — and, we know from his own lips, in Osama bin Laden’s aspirations. In February, Tom Ridge, the Bush administration’s homeland security chief, visited The Times for a conversation, and at the end someone asked, given all the things he had to worry about — hijacked airliners, anthrax in the mail, smallpox, germs in crop-dusters — what did he worry about most? He cupped his hands prayerfully and pressed his fingertips to his lips. ”Nuclear,” he said simply.
My assignment here was to stare at that fear and inventory the possibilities. How afraid should we be, and what of, exactly? I’ll tell you at the outset, this was not one of those exercises in which weighing the fears and assigning them probabilities laid them to rest. I’m not evacuating Manhattan, but neither am I sleeping quite as soundly.
Now Keller has the authority to stop publication of a story that provvides little if any useful information to the public but which could greatly assist the enemy, and he approves it.
When the next attack comes, one question will be how did the terrorists evade detection. Today the odds increased that one of their methods will be careful reading of the New York Times.