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Report: Bush-era surveillance went beyond wiretaps

A government report raises new questions about how the Bush White House kept key Justice officials in the dark about the post-Sept. 11 program.

July 11, 2009|Josh Meyer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 surveillance efforts went beyond the widely publicized warrantless wiretapping program, a government report disclosed Friday, encompassing additional secretive activities that created "unprecedented" spying powers.

The report also raised new questions about how the Bush White House kept key Justice Department officials in the dark as it launched the surveillance program.

In a move that it described as "extraordinary and inappropriate," the report said the White House relied on a single, lower-level attorney in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel for assessments about the programs' legality.

The attorney, John Yoo, a young George W. Bush appointee with close ties to the president's inner circle, wrote a series of memos legally blessing the program even though his superiors and most top officials were uninformed about it.

The report was compiled at the request of Congress by five government agency watchdogs: the inspectors general of the Justice Department, Pentagon, CIA, Directorate of National Intelligence and National Security Agency.

It represents the most detailed public disclosure of the existence of secret surveillance efforts beyond the warrantless wiretapping program, saying the overall package of efforts came to be known in the Bush administration as the "President's Surveillance Program."

However, the report did not describe the other programs or explain how they worked.

"All of these activities were authorized in a single presidential authorization," the report said, referring to the warrantless wiretapping as a "terrorist surveillance program" and the undisclosed efforts as "other intelligence activities."

"The specific details of the other intelligence activities remain highly classified," the report said.

The inspectors general interviewed more than 200 top officials and front-line agents in defense and intelligence agencies, and said views of the effectiveness of the warrantless wiretapping and other still- secret activities were mixed.

While many agents thought the efforts filled a gap in intelligence efforts, others "had difficulty evaluating the precise contribution of the President's Surveillance Program to counter-terrorism efforts because it was most often viewed as one source among many."

The inspectors general concluded that, even though Congress has adopted changes in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legalizing some of the activities, the information they produce "should be carefully monitored."

The report also provided a comprehensive and official narrative concerning the selective and often confrontational way in which the Bush administration sought and procured legal authorization for its post-Sept. 11 programs.

Eventually, the surveillance program and the Justice Department's role in it were so controversial that the deputy attorney general, James B. Comey, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III both threatened to resign in 2004 because they believed the program was illegal.

The dispute resulted in an infamous showdown that year in the hospital room of then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, when Comey raced up the hospital steps to prevent White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. from persuading the heavily medicated attorney general to sign off on an extension of the program.

Legal experts and lawmakers said the latest findings raised disturbing questions about the actions of the Bush administration and pointed to the need for ways to hold participants accountable.

"I am glad the American people can finally see for themselves what happens when a handful of senior officials -- who think they know better than the courts, the U.S. Justice Department and Congress -- decide to rewrite the law in secret," said Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "This report allows the American people to see how senior Bush administration officials concocted the program first and came up with its creative legal justifications later."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said the report added a sense of urgency to establishing a nonpartisan "commission of inquiry" to probe Bush administration programs. President Obama opposes such a commission.

A former Bush administration official who participated in the program said the inspectors' report failed to take into account that the Justice Department and the White House at the time consistently argued that the president "has authority to conduct electronic surveillance to protect the national security from foreign threats, independent of Congress."

Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political and legal sensitivity, the official said the programs resulted from concerns in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

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