The NSA, with full knowledge of the White House, crossed the line from routine surveillance of foreigners and suspected terrorists into illegal activity by continuing to monitor the international telephone calls and emails of Americans without a court order. The NSA unintentionally intercepts Americans' phone calls and emails if the agency's computers zero in on a specific keyword used in the communication. But once the NSA figures out that they are listening in on an American, the eavesdropping is supposed to immediately end, and the identity of the individual is supposed to be deleted. While the agency did follow protocol, there were instances when the NSA was instructed to keep tabs on certain individuals that became of interest to some officials in the White House.
What sets this type of operation apart from the unprecedented covert domestic spying activities the NSA had been conducting after 9/11 is a top secret executive order signed by President Bush in 2002 authorizing the NSA to target specific American citizens. Prior to 9/11, American citizens were the subject of non-specific surveillance by the NSA that was condoned and approved by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, according to former NSA and counterterrorism officials.
The sources, who requested anonymity because they were instructed not to talk about NSA activities but who hope they can testify before Congress about the domestic spying, said that in December 2000, the NSA completed a report for the incoming administration titled "Transition 2001," which explained, among other things, how the NSA would improve its intelligence gathering capabilities by hiring additional personnel.
"What we're supposed to do is delete the name of the person," said the former NSA official, who worked as an encryption specialist.
The former official said that even during the Clinton administration, the NSA would inadvertently obtain the identities of Americans citizens in its wiretaps as a result of certain keywords, like bomb or jihad, NSA computers are programmed to identify. When the NSA prepares its reports and transcripts of the conversations, the names of Americans are supposed to be immediately destroyed.
"If, in the course of surveillance, NSA analysts learn that it involves a US citizen or company, they are dumping that information right then and there," an unnamed official told the Boston Globe in a story published October 27, 2001.
But after Bush was sworn in as president, the way the NSA normally handled those issues started to change dramatically. Vice President Cheney, as Bob Woodward noted in his book Plan of Attack, was tapped by Bush in the summer of 2001 to be more of a presence at intelligence agencies, including the CIA and NSA.
"Given Cheney's background on national security going back to the Ford years, his time on the House Intelligence Committee, and as secretary of defense, Bush said at the top of his list of things he wanted Cheney to do was intelligence," Woodward wrote in his book about the buildup to the Iraq war. "In the first months of the new administration, Cheney made the rounds of the intelligence agencies - the CIA, the National Security Agency, which intercepted communications, and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. "
It was then that the NSA started receiving numerous requests from Cheney and other officials in the state and defense departments to reveal the identities of the Americans blacked out or deleted from intelligence reports so administration officials could better understand the context of the intelligence.
Separately, at this time, Cheney was working with intelligence agencies, including the NSA, to develop a large-scale emergency plan to deal with any biological, chemical or nuclear attack on US soil.
But the sources said that on dozens of occasions Cheney would, upon learning the identity of the individual, instruct the NSA to continue monitoring specific Americans caught in the wiretaps if he thought more information would be revealed, which crossed the line into illegal territory.
Cheney advised President Bush of what had turned up in the raw NSA reports, said one former White House official who worked on counterterrorism related issues.