The program was named the Terrorist Surveillance Program by the George W. Bush administration in response to the NSA warrantless surveillance controversy following disclosure of the program. It is claimed that this program operated without the judicial oversight mandated by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and legal challenges to the program are currently undergoing judicial review. Because the technical specifics of the program have not been disclosed, it is unclear if the program is subject to FISA. It is unknown if this is the original name of the program; the term was first used publicly by President Bush in a speech on January 23, 2006.
On August 17, 2006, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor initially ruled the program unconstitutional and illegal. On appeal, the decision was overturned on procedural grounds and the lawsuit was dismissed without addressing the merits of the claims, although one further challenge is still pending in the courts. On January 17, 2007, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales informed U.S. Senate leaders by letter that the program would not be reauthorized by the president, but would be subjected to judicial oversight. "Any electronic surveillance that was occurring as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program will now be conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court," according to his letter.
The complete details of the program are not known, as the Bush administration contends that security concerns do not allow it to release details, and limit judicial authorization and review. Implemented sometime after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the existence of the program was not made public until a 2005 New York Times article. Additional details came to light in a May 2006 USA Today article.
The President has stated that he has reviewed and reauthorized the program approximately every 45 days since it was implemented. The leadership of the Intelligence Committees of both the House and Senate were briefed a number of times since initiation of the program. They were not, however, allowed to make notes or confer with others to determine the legal ramifications, or even to mention the existence of the program to the full membership of the Intelligence Committees. Further, the administration has even refused to identify to the public which members of the committees were briefed; it has however provided a complete list of these members to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Prominent legal scholar and blogger Orin Kerr has argued that the program is probably not a wiretap nor call database, but more likely to be a pen register (or tap and trace) tap. Unlike wiretaps, where the actual content of the call is monitored, or listened to, a pen register is a limited form of wiretap where only basic call data, such as originating and receiving telephone numbers, time of call and duration is logged. Due to the limited nature of the data, frequently characterized as "outside the envelope", pen register taps have much lower legal standard than conventional wiretaps, and not subject to fourth amendment protection.
The only physical evidence of the NSA program are documents accidentally leaked to lawyers for an al-Qaeda front group the Al-Haramain Foundation. These documents only contain logs of phone calls being placed, but not actual transcripts, suggesting the wiretapping program is merely a pen-register tap.
On May 10, 2006, USA Today reported that the NSA has had a separate, previously undisclosed program in place since 9/11 to build a database of information about calls placed within the United States, including phone numbers, and the date and duration of the calls. According to the article, phone companies AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South disclosed the records to the NSA, while Qwest did not. The article quotes an unnamed source that "it's the largest database ever assembled in the world." Most reports indicate that this is a different program than Terrorist Surveillance Program. The administration has not confirmed the existence of this aspect of the program.
Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency 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.According to the Times:
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.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan refused to comment on the story on December 16, exclaiming "there’s a reason why we don’t get into discussing ongoing intelligence activities, because it could compromise our efforts to prevent attacks from happening." The next morning, the President gave a live eight-minute television address instead of his normal weekly radio address, during which he addressed the wiretap story directly:
I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. Before we intercept these communications, the government must have information that establishes a clear link to these terrorist networks.In the address, President Bush implied he had approved the tracing of domestic calls originating or terminating overseas, stating the program would "''make it more likely that killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time.'" He forcefully defended his actions as "crucial to our national security" and claimed that the American people expected him to "do everything in my power, under our laws and Constitution, to protect them and their civil liberties" as long as there was a "continuing threat" from al-Qaeda. The President also had harsh words for those who broke the story, saying that they acted illegally. "The unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk," he said.
The Times had withheld the article from publication for over a year. Both editor in chief Bill Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. were summoned by the President and White House officials in order to persuade the paper not to publish the story. The Times ran the story shortly before they would have been scooped by publication of their own reporter's book. The Times ombudsman speculates that the reason the backstory isn't being revealed is to protect sources. Russ Tice claims he was a source for the story.
Tice says the technology exists to track and sort through every domestic and international phone call as they are switched through centers, such as one in New York, and to search for key words or phrases that a terrorist might use.
"If you picked the word 'jihad' out of a conversation," Tice said, "the technology exists that you focus in on that conversation, and you pull it out of the system for processing."
According to Tice, intelligence analysts use the information to develop graphs that resemble spiderwebs linking one suspect's phone number to hundreds or even thousands more.
"That would mean for most Americans that if they conducted, or you know, placed an overseas communication, more than likely they were sucked into that vacuum," Tice said.
Also on February 5, USA Today ran a story reporting that, according to seven telecommunications executives, the NSA had secured the cooperation of the main telecommunications companies in charge of international phone-calls, including AT&T, MCI and Sprint, in its efforts to eavesdrop without warrants on international calls .
Critics of the Bush administration have regularly compared the current NSA surveillance program to those of Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War (i.e. Operation Shamrock, Operation Minaret, Church committee). However, these programs occurred prior to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was passed into law in response to widespread concern over these abuses of domestic surveillance activities. According to opponents of this program that is exactly what the current program is doing and why FISA was enacted.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against the program in 2006 on behalf of journalists, scholars, and lawyers. In the initial trial, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor on August 17, 2006 ruled the program was unconstitutional and imposed an injunction against it. The Justice Department filed an appeal within hours of the ruling and requested a stay of the injunction pending appeal. While opposing the stay, the ACLU agreed to delay implementation of the injunction until September 7 to allow time for the judge to hear the appeal. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit dismissed the case without addressing the merits of the claims, holding 2-1 that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit.
FISA explicitly covers "electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence information" performed within the United States, and there is no court decision supporting the theory that the President's constitutional authority allows him to override statutory law. This was emphasized by fourteen constitutional law scholars, including the dean of Yale Law School and the former deans of Stanford Law School and the University of Chicago Law School:
The American Bar Association, the Congressional Research Service, former Congressional representative of New York Elizabeth Holtzman, former White House Counsel John Dean, and lawyer/author Jennifer van Bergen have also criticized the administration's justification for conducting electronic surveillance within the US without first obtaining warrants as contrary to current U.S. law.
President Bush's former Assistant Deputy Attorney General for national security issues, David Kris, and five former FISC judges, one of whom resigned in protest, have also voiced their doubts as to the legality of a program bypassing FISA Stanford's Chip Pitts has usefully distinguished between the core NSA eavesdropping program, the data mining program, and the use of National Security Letters to clarify that each continues to present serious legal problems despite the government's supposedly bringing them within the relevant laws.