The nation’s top intelligence official drew sharp criticism from Capitol Hill and government watchdog groups Thursday for disclosing previously classified details about the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.
In a newspaper interview last week, Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell provided new details on the scope of the espionage program, saying that fewer than 100 people in the United States were under surveillance by the National Security Agency at any time, compared with thousands overseas.
He also disclosed details about a previously secret decision by a special intelligence court that ruled that the program was in violation of U.S. law. The deliberations of the court are generally classified.
The disclosures stunned members of Congress. They were not allowed to discuss those details publicly during an intense debate this month on legislation sought by McConnell that granted the government significant new powers to eavesdrop on e-mails and phone calls that pass into or through data networks in the United States.
“I’m shocked,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), chairwoman of an intelligence panel on the House Committee on Homeland Security. “It is stunning to me to read that he has decided to share these details with a small-town newspaper.”
Harman said the numbers that McConnell disclosed regarding the number of people inside the United States who were targets of NSA’s electronic eavesdropping “were so far as I knew as highly classified as any aspect of that program.”
McConnell’s comments came during an interview with the El Paso Times while he was in that city last week to appear at a conference on border security. His remarks also drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has challenged the legality of the spying program and fought in court to compel the Bush administration to disclose more details about it.
“If this ostensibly sensitive information can be released now, why could it not be released two months ago, when the public and Congress desperately needed it?” asked Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s national security project. “This administration has a history of selectively releasing classified information in order to further its political goals.”
A spokesman for McConnell declined to comment. As the nation’s top intelligence official, McConnell has authority to declassify material and would not face any legal consequence for the disclosures.
Nevertheless, other U.S. intelligence and congressional officials said they were perplexed by the director’s decision to provide so much detail about a program once held in such secrecy that only a handful in Congress were briefed on it.
Officials said it was unclear whether McConnell’s disclosures were part of a deliberate attempt to defend the program and his efforts to lobby members of Congress to pass new legislation expanding it. Democrats have complained that they were pressured into a hasty rewrite of landmark espionage laws, and the issue is expected to be revisited when Congress reconvenes next month.
Describing the scope of the eavesdropping program, McConnell said the number of targets inside the United States was “100 or less. And then the foreign side, it’s in the thousands.”
In disclosing its magnitude, McConnell may have been aiming to counter critics who contend that the government is engaged in widespread spying on Americans. “We’ve got a lot of territory to make up with people believing that we’re doing things we’re not doing,” McConnell said in the interview.
Other officials said McConnell might simply have slipped in an interview with a local newspaper. The Associated Press reported that after the interview, McConnell asked the El Paso newspaper to consider whether publishing the details he disclosed would be harmful.
In the interview, McConnell discussed in broad terms how spy agencies access U.S. telecommunications networks to pluck e-mails and phone calls of suspected terrorists and other international surveillance targets.
“There’s a sense that we’re doing massive data mining,” McConnell said, according to a transcript released by the El Paso newspaper. “In fact, what we’re doing is surgical. A telephone number is surgical. So, if you know what number, you can select it out.”