US President George W. Bush in 2002 authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on thousands of US and foreign citizens in the US without court-approved warrants, the New York Times said yesterday.
The unprecedented activity for the NSA, whose mission is to spy on foreign communications, was aimed at thwarting terrorist plots after al-Qaeda's Sept. 11 attacks on the US, unnamed government officials said.
Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the officials said, the NSA monitors the internal telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people inside the US without warrants in an effort to track "dirty numbers" linked to al-Qaeda.
"This is really a sea change," said a former senior official who specializes in national security law.
"It's almost a mainstay of this country that the NSA only does foreign searches," he added.
Some officials familiar with the ongoing spying operation have questioned whether the surveillance has crossed constitutional limits on legal searches.
The New York Times said it delayed publishing the information on the NSA searches Bush authorized by presidential order for a year, in response to White House concerns it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny.
Some officials said the eavesdropping program helped uncover several terrorist plots, including one by Ohio trucker Iyman Faris who in 2003 pleaded guilty to supporting al-Qaeda by planning to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.
Officials said the White House views the NSA operation as a necessary critical tool in helping disrupt terrorist plots and is confident that existing safeguards are sufficient to protect the privacy and civil liberties of US citizens.
They said that, in some cases, the Justice Department eventually seeks warrants if it wants to expand the eavesdropping to include communications confined within the US.
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