By SAM STANTON AND JIM SANDERS
December 20, 2005
"We know it's not legal, but it's just done," said George Main, spokesman for the Sacramento, Calif., chapter of Veterans for Peace, which has had its anti-war protests monitored by law enforcement.
"It doesn't surprise me because, when I was in the military in the Army security agency, we were the collection arm for the National Security Agency and it was one of the things we did. But not against peace people."
The president's 2002 decision to allow eavesdropping without warrants was made in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but it was not disclosed until last week.
Reaction in Washington was swift, with elected leaders condemning the decision and some calling for investigations. The revelation came amid debate in the Senate over renewal of some key portions of the USA Patriot Act, which has been singled out by civil libertarians as a threat to Americans' freedoms.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has teamed with conservative groups to roll back elements of the act, said it was "shocked" at the disclosure that the president had allowed the NSA to eavesdrop on phone and e-mail conversations inside the country without a warrant. The NSA is an intelligence agency that specializes in high-tech electronic eavesdropping, usually outside the U.S.
"Eavesdropping on conversations of U.S. citizens and others in the United States without a court order and without complying with the procedures of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is both illegal and unconstitutional," Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement. "The administration is claiming extraordinary presidential powers at the expense of civil liberties and is putting the president above the law."
It was reported Friday that the decision affected international communications involving people inside the United States, and that in the past authorization to tap into communications involving U.S. citizens required a court warrant issued by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as FISA.
The president's decision was said to be designed to help in anti-terror investigations, but some observers said the move was surprising because getting court approval for such warrants is considered routine.
"It's disturbing that the government is bypassing the extremely low threshold of the FISA court to do whatever it wants to spy on Americans," said Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento Valley office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "FISA almost never turns down any requests to tap phones, and you can retroactively file with FISA, you can file for a warrant after the fact."
Neal Coonerty, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz and a former president of the American Booksellers Association, said the president's move "is unnecessary."
"There are legal mechanisms to take care of this sort of thing," said Coonerty, who has criticized parts of the Patriot Act that make bookstore and library records available for government investigations. "This is not needed. ...
"I'm not an attorney, but I would guess that the legality of this is a big question."
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