WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on electronic communications around the world, receives thousands of requests each year from U.S. government officials seeking the names of Americans who show up in intercepted calls or e-mails -- and complies in the vast majority of cases without challenging the basis for the requests, current and former intelligence officials said.
The volume of requests and the NSA's almost reflexive practice of disclosing Americans' identities -- which under federal law are shielded unless there is a compelling intelligence reason for releasing a name -- have come as a surprise even to some members of Congress and government officials deeply involved in intelligence matters.
Officials from the NSA and other agencies say that the disclosures are proper and that there are significant protections against abuse. But the practice is coming under new scrutiny because of the recent disclosure that John R. Bolton, President Bush's nominee for ambassador to the U.N., submitted numerous requests for the identities of U.S. officials whose conversations were recorded by the NSA while monitoring overseas targets.
During his confirmation hearings, Bolton -- the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security -- initially said he had made such requests "on a couple of occasions, maybe a few more." His reason, he said, was that in evaluating intelligence reports, sometimes "it's important to find out who is saying what to whom."
The State Department subsequently revealed that Bolton had sought the names of Americans in at least 10 cases since 2001, and that the department as a whole had submitted about 400 requests during that period.
Those 400 inquiries represented only a "small percentage" of the total number fielded by the NSA, according to a government official with access to NSA data who spoke on condition of anonymity. Since January 2004, the NSA has received more than 3,000 requests, the official said, adding that "the magnitude is surprising" even to some intelligence experts.
"Significantly more than half" of the requests come from the CIA and other agencies in the U.S. intelligence community, the official said. The FBI and law enforcement agencies account for a tiny fraction of the total, while the rest come from policymakers such as Bolton and officials in other agencies.
The NSA declined to answer questions about the scope of the practice, refusing to say how many requests it fields, what percentage are granted or which agencies account for the largest number.
An official familiar with the NSA's role defended its procedures, saying the agency is committed to protecting Americans' privacy and that it does not reveal names unless doing so is necessary "to understand the foreign intelligence information [contained in an intercept] or to assess its significance."
Still, the number of requests and apparent absence of external checks has alarmed some experts.
"It doesn't mean that whenever somebody requests names that they are abusing the system," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst at the independent Federation of American Scientists. "But if they were abusing the system, there might be no way to find out about it."
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, last week asked the NSA to provide a statistical breakdown on its handling of requests.
"The senator wants a briefing on the whole process," said Wendy Morigi, a spokeswoman for Rockefeller. She said Rockefeller also had "asked the NSA to provide additional information to help better understand the nature of the requests made by Bolton."
The NSA is the largest -- and in some ways most secretive -- member of the U.S. intelligence community. Its eavesdropping operations are tightly governed by laws established to protect U.S. citizens from abuses that were exposed by congressional investigations in the 1970s. In general, the agency is barred from monitoring the conversations of U.S. citizens, even when they are overseas, without demonstrating to a special court that the individual is a foreign agent or suspected terrorist.
Even so, Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the outgoing director of the NSA, recently testified that "it is not uncommon for us to come across information to, from or about what we would call a protected person, a U.S. person" in the routine monitoring of foreign targets.
In those cases, Hayden said, the agency abides by "minimization procedures" in which the names of U.S. individuals are deleted from published intelligence reports -- typically replaced by a generic reference to "named U.S. person" or "named U.S. official." Hayden was confirmed last week as deputy director for national intelligence, a new position overseeing all 15 U.S. spy agencies.