The Bush administration rushed to defend new espionage legislation Monday amid growing concern that the changes could lead to increased spying by U.S. intelligence agencies on American citizens.
In a push to counter criticism of the new law, senior administration officials cited a combination of legal barriers and resource restrictions that they said will keep the government from sifting through e-mails and phone calls of Americans without obtaining court warrants.
But officials declined to provide details of how the new authorizations might be used by the National Security Agency and other U.S. spy services. And in many cases they could point only to internal monitoring mechanisms to prevent abuse of new rules that appear to give the government greater ability to tap into the traffic flowing across U.S. telecommunications networks.
Officials rejected assertions that the new rules will enable the government to cast electronic “drift nets” that might ensnare U.S. citizens, even if by accident.
“We’re really talking about targeting people, directed targeting at people overseas,” said a senior administration official who was among three authorized to discuss the legislation – on the condition they not be identified – in a conference call with reporters Monday. “If the target is overseas, you don’t need a warrant. If the target is in the United States, you do.”
The White House also focused specifically on concerns that the new legislation will amount to the expansion of a warrantless wiretapping program, which critics contend is unconstitutional, that President Bush authorized after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto called such assertions unfounded and highly misleading.
But intelligence experts said there are provisions in the new legislation that appear to make it possible for the government to engage in the intelligence collection activities that the Bush administration officials were discounting.
“They are trying to shift the terms of the debate to their intentions and away from the meaning of the new law,” said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence policy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.
“The new law gives them authority to do far more than simply surveil foreign communications abroad,” Aftergood said. “It expands the surveillance program beyond terrorism to encompass foreign intelligence. It permits the monitoring of communications of a U.S. person as long as he or she is not the primary target. And it effectively removes judicial supervision of the surveillance process.”