The National Security Agency (NSA) first began to conduct warrantless eavesdropping on telephone calls and e-mail messages between the US and Afghanistan months before US President George W. Bush officially authorized a broader version of the agency's special domestic collection program, according to current and former government officials.
The security agency surveillance of telecommunications between the US and Afghanistan began in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the officials said.
The agency operation included eavesdropping on communications between Americans and other individuals in the US and people in Afghanistan without the court-approved search warrants that are normally required for such domestic intelligence activities.
On Saturday, Bush confirmed the existence of the NSA's domestic intelligence collection program and defended it, saying it had been instrumental in disrupting terrorist cells in the US.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration and senior US intelligence officials quickly decided that existing laws and regulations restricting the government's ability to monitor US communications were too rigid to permit quick and flexible access to international calls and e-mail traffic involving terrorism suspects.
Administration officials also believed that the intelligence community, including the CIA and the NSA, had been too risk-averse before the attacks and had missed opportunities to prevent them.
In the days after the attacks, the CIA determined that al-Qaeda, which had found a haven in Afghanistan, was responsible.
Congress quickly passed a resolution authorizing the president to conduct a war on terrorism, and the NSA was secretly ordered to begin conducting comprehensive coverage of all communications into and out of Afghanistan, including those to and from the US, current and former officials said.
* The NSA began monitoring telecommunications between Americans and people in Afghanistan days after the Sept. 11 attacks, without first getting search warrents
* The NSA was secretly ordered to begin conducting comprehensive coverage of all communications into and out of Afghanistan after Congress passed a resolution authorizing the president to conduct a war on terrorism
* The Department of Justice only began to monitor the operation last year
It could not be learned whether Bush issued a formal, written order authorizing the early surveillance of communications between the US and Afghanistan that was later superseded by the broader order.
A White House spokesman, Maria Tamburri, declined to comment on Saturday on the Afghanistan monitoring, saying she could not go beyond Bush's speech.
Current and former US intelligence and law enforcement officials who discussed the matter were granted anonymity because the intelligence-gathering program is highly classified. Some had direct knowledge of the program.
The disclosure of the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping on calls between the US and Afghanistan sheds light on the origins of the agency's larger surveillance activities, which officials say have included monitoring the communications of as many as 500 Americans and other people inside the US without search warrants at any one time. Several current and former officials have said that they believe the agency operation began virtually on the fly in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The early, narrow targeting of communications in and out of Afghanistan reflected the ad hoc nature of the government's initial approach to counter-terrorism policies after Sept. 11 attacks. But after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban government in late 2001, al-Qaeda lost its sanctuary, and Osama bin Laden and other Qaida leaders scattered to other countries.