January 1, 2006

US Spies Said to Share Eavesdropping Data

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Data swept up by the U.S. National Security Agency's controversial eavesdropping on communications between the United States and overseas has been sent to sister federal agencies for cross-checking with other databases, The Washington Post reported on Sunday.

Citing current and former administration officials whom it did not identify, the Post said the NSA had handed such information to the Defense Intelligence Agency among other government offices.

Information from intercepts -- which typically includes records of telephone or e-mail communications -- would be made available by request to agencies "that are allowed to have it, including the FBI, DIA, CIA and Department of Homeland Security," one former official was quoted as saying.

The New York Times reported two weeks ago that President George W. Bush had authorized the NSA to monitor, without court orders, the international telephone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens suspected of links to foreign terrorists.

A 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, makes it illegal to spy on U.S. citizens in the United States without the approval of a special court.

Bush quickly acknowledged the program, sparked by the September 11 attacks. The Justice Department has launched an investigation to determine who disclosed it, officials said on Friday.

Bush and senior administration officials have argued that the policy of authorizing the eavesdropping -- without court orders -- was legal and necessary to help defend the country after September 11. The White House has said the program was narrow in scope and that key congressional leaders were briefed about it.

Agencies that get the information can use it for "data mining," or looking for patterns or matches with other databases that they maintain "which may or may not be specifically geared toward detecting terrorism threats," the Post quoted a former official as saying.

The NSA did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. The Post said spokesmen for the FBI, CIA and the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, also declined to comment on the use of NSA data.

The New York Times reported on its Web site on Sunday that James Comey, a top deputy to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, objected in 2004 to aspects of the NSA's domestic surveillance program and refused to sign on to its continued use among concerns over its legality and oversight.

Citing officials with knowledge of the situation, the Times said the concerns prompted two of Bush's top aides -- Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales, then White House counsel and now attorney general, to try to get needed approval from Ashcroft while he was in a Washington hospital for gallbladder surgery.

The Times said accounts of the hospital meeting differed, but that some officials said Ashcroft also appeared reluctant to give his authorization to continue with aspects of the program. It was unclear if the White House persuaded Ashcroft to approve the program or proceeded without it, the Times said.

It added the concerns appeared to have played a part in the Justice Department's decision to suspend and revamp the program, according to officials.

The Times said Comey, the White House and Ashcroft declined to comment on the report, while Gonzales could not be reached.