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Bolton Testimony Revealed Domestic Spying on Up to 500 US Citizens

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This past spring, an explosive nugget of information slipped out during the confirmation hearings of John Bolton - nominated by President Bush to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations - that in hindsight should have blown the lid off Bush's four-year-old clandestine spy program involving the National Security Agency.

At the hearing in late April, Bolton, a former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control, told Congress that since 2001 he had asked the NSA on 10 different occasions to reveal to him the identities of American citizens who were caught in the NSA's raw intelligence reports in what appears to be a routine circumventing of the rules governing eavesdropping on the American public.

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It turned out that Bolton was just one of many government officials who learned the identities of Americans caught in the NSA intercepts. The State Department asked the NSA to unmask the identities of American citizens 500 times since May 2001.

Newsweek revealed earlier this year that the NSA 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 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," Newsweek said in its May 2 issue. "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 has always blacked out the names of American citizens when it distributes reports about its activities to various governmental agencies because the NSA, by law, is not supposed to spy on Americans. 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. 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.

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But that didn't appear to be the case with Bolton.

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, and by doing so he had violated the NSA's rules by discussing classified information contained in the wiretap.

In a letter to Gen. 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."

Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Chatter: Dispatches From the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, said at the time that he was troubled that, other than the questions raised by Rockefeller, Congress and the Senate showed little concern over the NSA's practices "beyond the specifics involving Bolton."

"If the National Security Agency provides officials with the identities of Americans on its tapes, what is the use of making secret those names in the first place?" Keefe wrote in an August 11 op-ed in the New York Times. "We now know that this hasn't been the case - the agency has been listening to Americans' phone calls, just not reporting any names. And Bolton's experience makes clear that keeping those names confidential was a formality that high-ranking officials could overcome by picking up the phone."

This article was originally published at Truthout.org , here.
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Jason Leopold is Deputy Managing Editor of Truthout.org and the founding editor of the online investigative news magazine The Public Record, http://www.pubrecord.org. He is the author of the National Bestseller, "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit (more...)
 

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