Bush Acknowledges Approving Eavesdropping
In his weekly radio address, President Bush acknowledged that he had ordered the NSA to conduct domestic eavesdropping against terrorist suspects.
President Bush said Saturday he has no intention of stopping his personal authorizations of a post-Sept. 11 secret eavesdropping program in the U.S., lashing out at those involved in revealing it while defending it as crucial to preventing future attacks. “This is a highly classified program that is crucial to our national security,” he said in a radio address delivered live from the White House’s Roosevelt Room. “This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is critical to saving American lives. The American people expect me to do everything in my power, under our laws and Constitution, to protect them and their civil liberties and that is exactly what I will continue to do as long as I am president of the United States,” Bush said.
Bush said the program was narrowly designed and used “consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution.” He said it is used only to intercept the international communications of people inside the United States who have been determined to have “a clear link” to al-Qaida or related terrorist organizations. The program is reviewed every 45 days, using fresh threat assessments, legal reviews by the Justice Department, White House counsel and others, and information from previous activities under the program, the president said.
Without identifying specific lawmakers, Bush said congressional leaders have been briefed more than a dozen times on the program’s activities. The president also said the intelligence officials involved in the monitoring receive extensive training to make sure civil liberties are not violated.
Appearing angry at points during his eight-minute address, Bush said he had reauthorized the program more than 30 times since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and plans to continue doing so. “I intend to do so for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al-Qaida and related groups,” he said. The president contended the program has helped “detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the U.S. and abroad,” but did not provide specific examples. He said it is designed in part to fix problems raised by the Sept. 11 commission, which found that two of the suicide hijackers were communicating from San Diego with al-Qaida operatives overseas. “The activities I have authorized make it more likely that killers like these 9-11 hijackers will be identified and located in time,” he said.
The president had harsh words for those who talked about the program to the media, saying their actions were illegal and improper. “As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have,” he said. “The unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk.”
If it hasn’t already begun, an investigation into the identity of the leakers should commence immediately. Since the Times acknowledged the story was revealed to the White House a year ago but held it for national security reasons, one wonders whether that has already occured. The penalty for intentionally leaking classified information to the press should be severe.
Update: Former Maine Senator and Clinton SECDEF William Cohen, writing five days before the 9/11 attacks, warned:
The romantic notion that most leakers are earnest civil servants driven by conscience is touchingly naive. Most, in fact, are midlevel career or political appointees seeking bureaucratic advantage in the daily battles over making and implementing government decisions. Most other leaks come from a small number of career staff people seeking to undermine the policies of their political superiors, who have been duly elected or appointed but whom the leakers view as temporary interlopers in government. So much for leakers upholding the temple of democracy.
Today, leakers can be subject to both administrative and criminal penalties. They can be fired, have their security clearances removed and be disciplined in other ways. Existing federal criminal law states that whoever has “information relating to the national defense” and has “reason to believe it could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation” and “willfully” transmits that information to “any person not entitled to receive it” shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 10 years. The term “national defense” has been broadly defined by the courts, and “advantage” to a foreign nation need not be disadvantageous to the United States. The courts have ruled that this provision does not apply narrowly to “spying” but to disclosure to anyone not entitled to receive the information — including reporters.
Still, I believe that stricter laws may be necessary. Some types of classified information, like United States trade negotiating positions, might not be considered “information relating to the national defense” but also need to be strongly protected.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, argued this past July:
[T]here is no comprehensive statute that provides criminal penalties for the unauthorized disclosure of classified information regardless of the type of information or the recipient involved. As a result, the Department of Justice is left with a Ã¢€œpatchworkÃ¢€ of statutes to go after those who leak.
[T]he fact that leaks continue is evidence that people in the intelligence community are not being properly educated on the importance of protecting our secrets. The community, upon direction from the DNI, should implement a community-wide campaign to educate individuals about their legal obligations and possible penalties for failing to safeguard intelligence information.
In addition, we need to give the Department of Justice all the tools it needs to identify and prosecute individuals who deliberately share classified intelligence. The time has come for a comprehensive law that will make it easier for the government to prosecute wrongdoers and increase the penalties, which hopefully will act as a deterrent for people thinking about disclosing information.
In the coming months, I intend to hold a round of hearings on this issue and invite key officials from Justice, CIA and the Defense Department, among others, to testify on ways the Intelligence Community can do more to prevent leaks.
We need to resolve this matter quickly.
- Rep. Pete Hoekstra, Secrets and Leaks: The Costs and Consequences for National Security, 28 July 2005
- Former SECDEF William Cohen, National Secrets, Too Frequently Told, 6 September 2001
- CLASSIFIED INFORMATION PROCEDURES ACT (PL 96-456)
- Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
Previously at OTB: