The Bush administration’s chief intelligence official said Tuesday that President Bush authorized a series of secret intelligence activities under a single executive order in late 2001, making clear that a controversial National Security Agency surveillance effort was part of a much broader operation than the president previously described.
The disclosure by Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, appears to be the first time that the administration has publicly acknowledged that Bush’s order included undisclosed activities beyond the warrantless surveillance of e-mails and phone calls that Bush confirmed in December 2005.
In a letter to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), McConnell wrote that the executive order after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks included “a number of ... intelligence activities” and that a phrase routinely used by the administration -- the Terrorist Surveillance Program -- applied only to “one particular aspect of these activities, and nothing more.”
“This is the only aspect of the NSA activities that can be discussed publicly because it is the only aspect of those various activities whose existence has been officially acknowledged,” McConnell said.
The program that Bush announced was put under a court’s supervision in January, but the administration wants congressional approval to do much of the same surveillance without a court order.
McConnell’s letter was aimed at defending Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales from allegations by Democrats that he may have committed perjury by telling Congress that no legal objections were raised about the program.
Gonzales said a legal fight in early 2004 was focused on “other intelligence activities” than those confirmed by Bush, but never connected those to Bush’s executive order.
But in doing so, McConnell’s letter also underscored that the full scope of the NSA’s surveillance program under Bush’s order had not been revealed. The program described by Bush and his aides allowed the interception of communication between the U.S. and other countries where one party was believed to be tied to Al Qaeda, so other types of communication or data were presumably being collected under the parts of the wider NSA program that remained hidden.
News reports over the last 20 months have detailed a range of activities linked to the program, including the use of data mining to identify surveillance targets and the participation of telecommunication companies in turning over millions of phone records. The administration has not publicly confirmed such reports.
A spokesman for McConnell declined to elaborate on the letter.
The Justice Department also declined to comment.