Three years ago, John Bolton, the former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, told Congress that he had asked the NSA to reveal to him the identities of 19 American citizens who were caught up in 10 of the NSA's raw intelligence reports since 9/11.
By law, the agency is prohibited from spying Americans and if the NSA intercepts the names of Americans in the course of a wiretap, the agency is supposed to black out the names prior to distributing its reports to other agencies. But the NSA did not second guess Bolton's requests and willingly turned over the identities of U.S. citizens caught up in the wiretaps.
The NSA, based in Fort Meade, Maryland, operates under the Department of Defense. It distributes analysis summaries of its intelligence-gathering to a certain number of senior US officials, but it is prohibited from sharing its raw data - transcripts from wiretaps - with anyone. The raw data is prized by intelligence analysts because it provides additional context and more leads than the watered-down summaries.
But it turned out that Bolton, who was nominated by George W. Bush to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations when he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about his requests to the NSA, was just one of many government officials who learned the identities of Americans caught in NSA intercepts in the aftermath of 9/11. In fact, by 2006 the State Department had asked the NSA to unmask the identities of American citizens 500 times since May 2001.
The NSA also disclosed to senior White House officials and other policymakers at federal agencies the names of as many as 10,000 American citizens the agency obtained while purportedly eavesdropping on foreigners. The Americans weren't involved in any sort of terrorist activity, nor did they pose any sort of threat to national security, but had simply been named while the NSA was conducting wiretaps.
The "NSA received - and fulfilled - between 3,000 and 3,500 requests from other agencies to supply the names of U.S. citizens and officials (and citizens of other countries that help NSA eavesdrop around the world, including Britain, Canada and Australia) that initially were deleted from raw intercept reports," according to a May 2, 2006 report in Newsweek.
"Sources say the number of names disclosed by NSA to other agencies during this period is more than 10,000. About one third of such disclosures were made to officials at the policymaking level; most of the rest were disclosed to other intel agencies and, perhaps surprisingly, only a small proportion to law-enforcement agencies."
The NSA had also turned over its raw intelligence to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which used it to spy on Americans suspected of posing a threat, according to a Jan. 1, 2006 report in the Washington Post.
The names of American citizens that are blacked out can be revealed to government officials if they ask for them in writing and only if they're needed to help the official better understand the context of the intelligence information they were included in.
But that wasn't the case with Bolton or other government officials and agencies.
'We typically would ask why'' disclosure of an identity was necessary, said Stewart Baker, a former general counsel at the NSA, ''but we wouldn't try to second-guess'' the rationale.
During one routine wiretap, the NSA obtained the name of a state department official whose name had been blacked out when the agency submitted its report to various federal agencies. Bolton's chief of staff, Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA official, revealed during the confirmation hearings that Bolton had requested that the NSA unmask the unidentified official. Fleitz said that when Bolton found out his identity, he congratulated the official, though it's unknown why, and by doing so he had violated the NSA's rules by discussing classified information contained in the wiretap.
In a letter to Lt. General Michael Hayden, then the NSA's outgoing director, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Intelligence Committee's vice chairman said, "the NSA memorandum forwarding the requested identity to State (Intelligence and Research) included the following restriction: 'Request no further action be taken on this information without prior approval of NSA.' I have confirmed with the NSA that the phrase 'no further action' includes sharing the requested identity of U.S. persons with any individual not authorized by the NSA to receive the identity."
"In addition to being troubled that Mr. Bolton may have shared U.S. person identity information without required NSA approval," Rockefeller wrote, "I am concerned that the reason for sharing the information was not in keeping with Mr. Bolton's requested justification for the identity in the first place. The identity information was provided to Mr. Bolton based on the stated reason that he needed to know the identity in order to better under the foreign intelligence contained in the NSA report."
Hayden "subsequently gave a top-secret briefing to Rockefeller and the Intelligence Committee's GOP chairman, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, about Bolton's dealings with the NSA," Newsweek reported on May 26, 2005. Newsweek further reported: