NSA Monitored Personal Conversations Of Innocent Americans, Report Says

For Immediate Release

ACLU
Contact: 

Rachel Myers, (212) 549-2689 or 2666; media@aclu.org

NSA Monitored Personal Conversations Of Innocent Americans, Report Says

New Information Suggests That Bush Administration Misrepresented Scope Of NSA Surveillance Activities

WASHINGTON - National
Security Agency (NSA) officials have intercepted, listened to and
passed around the phone calls of hundreds of innocent U.S. citizens
working overseas, according to an ABC News report out today. The new
information shows the government has misled the American public about
the scope of its surveillance activities, according to the American
Civil Liberties Union.

"The NSA used its surveillance
powers to intentionally collect the personal communications of innocent
Americans, including service members and humanitarian aid workers,"
said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project.
"Today's report is an indictment not only of the Bush administration,
but of all of those political leaders, Democratic and Republican, who
have been saying that the executive branch can be trusted with
surveillance powers that are essentially unchecked."

In the ABC report, two former
military intercept officers who worked at the NSA charge that the
government spying agency listened in on calls to the United States made
by soldiers, journalists and human rights workers working in the Middle
East, even after it was clear that the calls were not in any way
related to national security. The NSA officials regularly passed around
salacious calls such as the private "phone sex" calls of military
officers calling home, according to the report.

The new information seems to
contradict the statements of Bush administration officials who assured
the public that the NSA's surveillance activities were directed at
suspected terrorists. 
 
"The American public is led to
believe that the NSA is eavesdropping on calls where one party is a
member of al Qaeda, but in reality the NSA is monitoring and collecting
the personal communications of innocent Americans," said James Bamford,
who first interviewed the former intercept officers for his book, "The
Shadow Factory," due out next week. "What's worse, once a telephone
number or e-mail address gets picked up, it stays in the system. Every
communication from the number or address is picked up, monitored and
stored permanently."

The ABC report suggests that the
surveillance program was ineffective and even harmful to national
security because it diverted surveillance resources from actual
threats. By collecting so much information about innocent people, said
one of the former officers, the NSA was actually "hurting our ability
to effectively protect our national security." The report also raises
troubling concerns that the NSA was listening in on the calls of aid
workers at organizations including the International Red Cross and
Doctors Without Borders.
 
"What's tragic is that Congress
recently enacted a law giving the NSA even more authority to collect
our telephone calls and e-mails - in fact, more authority than the
agency has ever had before," said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with
the ACLU National Security Project. "Rather than reining in NSA
lawbreaking and abuse, Congress has given the NSA carte blanche to
conduct dragnet, suspicionless monitoring of all our international
communications - precisely the kind of invasive and ineffective
monitoring described by whistleblowers in the ABC story."

In 2005, the New York Times reported
that President Bush had repeatedly authorized the NSA to monitor the
phone calls and e-mails of innocent Americans, without a warrant and in
violation of the Constitution. The ACLU won an initial legal challenge
to the program in August 2006, but in July 2007 the Sixth Circuit Court
of Appeals dismissed the case, ruling the plaintiffs in the case -
which included scholars and national nonprofit organizations, as well
as Bamford and other journalists - had no standing to sue because they
could not state with certainty that they had been wiretapped by the
NSA. In February 2008, the Supreme Court denied to hear the ACLU's
appeal of the case.
 
In July 2008, Congress enacted the
FISA Amendments Act of 2008, giving the NSA even more power to spy on
Americans without warrants than it exercised under its illegal
surveillance program. The ACLU filed a landmark lawsuit to stop the
government from conducting surveillance under the new wiretapping law,
arguing that the law violates the Fourth Amendment by giving the
government virtually unchecked power to intercept Americans'
international e-mails and telephone calls. The case was filed on behalf
of a broad coalition of attorneys and human rights, labor, legal and
media organizations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
(D-NV) pledged to revisit the FAA again in 2009 when provisions of the
controversial USA Patriot Act are due to expire.

"This is exactly what we warned
Congress would happen when it was debating the FISA Amendments Act,"
said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative
Office. "The fact that NSA employees treat the most personal
communications of our troops and overseas civilians as break room
entertainment is shocking. This kind of untenable spying power should
never have been granted. Congressional leadership is obligated to
revisit this statute and fix its mistake."

More information about the ACLU's ongoing lawsuit is available online at: www.aclu.org/faa

 

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