U.S. intelligence analysts eavesdropped on personal calls between Americans overseas and their families back home and monitored the communications of workers with the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations, according to two military linguists involved in U.S. surveillance programs.
The accounts are the most detailed to date to challenge the assertions of President Bush, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and other administration officials that the government’s controversial overseas wiretapping activities have been carefully monitored to prevent abuse and invasion of U.S. citizens’ privacy.
Describing the allegations as “extremely disturbing,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the panel had launched an inquiry and requested records from the Bush administration.
The linguists said that recordings of intimate conversations between citizens and their loved ones were sometimes passed around, out of prurient interest, among analysts at an electronic surveillance facility at Ft. Gordon, Ga.
They also said they were encouraged to continue monitoring calls of aid workers and other personnel stationed in the Middle East even when it was clear the callers had no ties to terrorists or posed no threat to U.S. interests.
“There were people who called the States to talk to their families,” said Adrienne Kinne, 31, a former Arab linguist in the Army Reserve who worked at a National Security Agency facility at Ft. Gordon from 2001 to 2003.
“We identified phone numbers belonging to nonthreatening groups, including the Red Cross,” she said in an interview with The Times. “We could have blocked their numbers, but we didn’t, and we were told to listen to them just in case.”
Kinne’s accounts were echoed by a former Arab linguist for the Navy, David Murfee Faulk, 39, who worked at the same facility from 2003 to 2007 and said in an interview that the government routinely monitored conversations between U.S. troops in Iraq and their spouses or loved ones.
“I observed people writing down, word for word, very embarrassing conversations,” Faulk told The Times. “People would say, ‘Hey, check this out, you’re not going to believe what I heard.’ ”
Their claims were reported Thursday by ABC News.
The overseas wiretapping activities have been a source of controversy since it was disclosed in December 2005 that Bush had secretly authorized the NSA to override existing laws and begin monitoring the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. residents. Critics, including some members of Congress, have described the eavesdropping as a violation of laws passed in the 1970s that required court warrants before communications of U.S. residents could be monitored.
Bush and Hayden, who headed the NSA from 1999 to 2005, have repeatedly defended the legality of the program, characterizing it as a carefully targeted operation.
“We’re going after very specific communications that our professional judgment tells us we have reason to believe are those associated with people who want to kill Americans,” Hayden said in a speech defending the program in 2006.
It is not clear whether the abuses alleged by Kinne and Faulk occurred as part of the sweeping Terrorist Surveillance Program authorized by Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks or were tied to more narrow military intelligence operations focused on protecting U.S. forces.
An NSA spokesman said the agency “takes its legal responsibility seriously” and operates “in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations and with the highest standards of integrity and lawful action.”
“Some of these allegations have been investigated and found to be unsubstantiated,” the NSA spokesman said. “Others are in the investigation process.”
Congress overhauled the foreign intelligence surveillance laws this year to give the government greater latitude to track targets overseas. But the law still imposes strict protections for U.S. citizens abroad and requires the government to delete or block information that isn’t for valid intelligence purposes.
“At NSA, the law was followed assiduously,” said Mark Mansfield, a spokesman for Hayden, who became CIA director in 2006. “The notion that Gen. Hayden sanctioned or tolerated illegalities of any sort is ridiculous on its face.”
An intelligence official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity said the inspectors general at the Army and the NSA had investigated Kinne’s allegations and “were not able to substantiate them.”
Civil liberties groups said the linguists’ accounts raise questions about safeguards for citizens. “The NSA used its surveillance powers to intentionally collect the personal communications of innocent Americans,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.
Kinne and Faulk described working in massive facilities at Ft. Gordon where rows of linguists and analysts wearing headphones comb through intercepts collected from all over the world, transcribing the recordings in English. Ft. Gordon is one of three military facilities in the United States -- the others are in Texas and Hawaii -- dedicated to so-called signals intelligence analysis.
Kinne said the recordings she transcribed were mainly intercepted transmissions from satellite phones in the Middle East. The recordings would initially be sorted by computer and given rankings from 1 to 9, with the lowest numbers associated with terrorists and other immediate threats and given greatest priority.
“Humanitarian aid organizations were priorities around 5 or 7,” said Kinne, who now works at a veterans hospital in Vermont and has joined an antiwar veterans group.
She said she reported her concerns to superiors as well as members of Congress, including Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), but “nobody ever bothered to call me back.”
Faulk, who worked until recently as a reporter for a community newspaper in Augusta, Ga., said he was one of as many as 3,000 linguists at Ft. Gordon, many of them in their early 20s. His group spent much of its time monitoring calls into and out of Baghdad’s Green Zone, the fortified enclave that houses the U.S. Embassy and military and intelligence commands.
“I think it was a small number of people abusing the program,” Faulk said. “But I also think that the majority of translators, because of their age -- very young, very often recruited right out of high school -- are susceptible to falling into this trap.”