Not enough relevant officials knew the size and depth of an unprecedented surveillance program during the administration of former US president George W. Bush, let alone signed off on it, a team of federal inspectors-general found.
The Bush administration pulled in a great quantity of information far beyond the warrantless wiretapping previously acknowledged, the inspectors reported on Friday. They questioned the legal basis for the effort but shielded almost all details on the grounds that they were too secret to reveal.
The report, mandated by Congress last year and delivered to lawmakers on Friday, also said it was unclear how much valuable intelligence the program had yielded.
On the subject of oversight, the report criticized John Yoo, a deputy assistant attorney general who wrote legal memos defending the policy. His boss, attorney general John Ashcroft, was not aware until March 2004 of the exact nature of the intelligence operations beyond wiretapping that he had been approving for the previous two-and-a-half years, the report says.
The report, compiled by five inspectors general, refered to “unprecedented collection activities” by US intelligence agencies under an executive order signed by Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Just what those activities involved remains classified, but the inspectors said that any continued use of the secret programs must be “carefully monitored.”
Most of the intelligence leads generated under what was known as the “President’s Surveillance Program” did not have any connection to terrorism, the report said.
But FBI agents told the authors that the “mere possibility of the leads producing useful information made investigating the leads worthwhile.”
The inspectors general interviewed more than 200 people inside and outside the government, but five former Bush administration officials refused to be questioned. They were Ashcroft, Yoo, former CIA director George Tenet, former White House chief of staff Andrew Card and David Addington, an aide to then-vice president Dick Cheney.
According to the report, Addington could personally decide who in the administration was “read into” — allowed access to — the classified program.
The only part of intelligence-gathering acknowledged by the Bush White House was the wiretapping-without-warrants effort.
The administration acknowledged in 2005 that it had allowed the National Security Agency to intercept international communications that passed through US cables without seeking court orders.
Although the report documents Bush administration policies, its fallout could be a problem for the administration of US President Barack Obama if it inherited any or all of the still-classified operations.
Bush brought the warrantless wiretapping program under the authority of a secret court in 2006 and Congress authorized most of the intercepts in an electronic surveillance law last year. The fate of the remaining and still classified aspects of the wider surveillance program is not clear from the report.