WASHINGTON -- President Bush signed a secret order in 2002 authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on US citizens and foreign nationals in the United States, despite previous legal prohibitions against such domestic spying, sources with knowledge of the program said last night.
The secretive NSA, which had generally been forbidden from domestic spying except in narrow circumstances involving foreign nationals, has monitored the e-mails, telephone calls, and other communications of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people under the program, The New York Times reported last night.
The aim of the program was to rapidly monitor the phone calls and other communications of people in the United States believed to have contact with suspected associates of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups overseas, according to two former senior administration officials. Authorities, including General Michael V. Hayden, the former NSA director, were worried that vital information could be lost in the time it took to secure a warrant from a special surveillance court, sources said.
But the program's ramifications also prompted concerns from some quarters, including from Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, and from the presiding judge of the surveillance court, which oversees lawful domestic spying, according to the Times.
The Times said it delayed publishing its story about the NSA program for a year after administration officials said its disclosure would harm national security.
The White House made no comment last night. A senior official reached by phone said the issue was too sensitive to talk about.
Congressional sources familiar with limited aspects of the program would not discuss any classified details but made clear serious questions existed regarding the legality of the NSA actions. The sources, who would not be identified, said there were conditions under which it would be possible to gather information on Americans if it were part of an investigation into foreign intelligence.
But those cases are supposed to be minimized. The sources said the actual work of the NSA is so closely held that it is difficult to determine under which circumstances the information is being used within the intelligence community and whether it comports with current law.
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies at George Washington University, said the secret order may amount to the president authorizing criminal activity.
The law governing clandestine surveillance in the United States, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, prohibits conducting electronic surveillance not authorized by statute.
''This is as shocking a revelation as we have ever seen from the Bush administration," said Martin, who has been critical of the administration's surveillance policies. ''It is, I believe, the first time a president has authorized government agencies to violate a specific criminal prohibition and eavesdrop on Americans."