Warrantless Wiretapping Was Far More Involved Than Previously Known, New Book Says

Post-9/11, the Bush administration authorized more warrantless wiretapping than previously known.

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The warrantless wiretapping conducted on American citizens by the U.S. government post-9/11 was far more involved and more troubling than previously known, according to a new book.

Kurt Eichenwald's "500 Days," which chronicles the decisions lawmakers and other leaders made in the 500 days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lays out in startling detail how the National Security Agency's wiretapping plan was first proposed, quickly adopted and then used—all in a matter of days.

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"The NSA plan was elegant in its theoretical simplicity, awesome in its technological cunning, and terrifying in its potential for abuse," writes Eichenwald. "At its essence, the ambitious new blueprint would give the agency unprecendented surveillance powers in the hunt for terrorists."

According to Eichenwald, the idea for the wiretapping plan first came from White House counsel Tim Flanigan, who wanted to make sure the NSA had all the capabilities it needed to intercept communications among radical Islamists who could be planning a second attack.

The plan was pitched to then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

It was clear that it would be "the most dramatic expansion of NSA's power and authority in the agency's 49 year history," Eichenwald writes. In the past, the NSA was prevented from tracking calls from "dirty numbers," or numbers potentialy associated with terrorists, if those calls were made to the U.S. Under the new plan, Eichenwald writes, calls to the U.S. could be monitored.

The biggest expansion in surveillance, though, may have taken place electronically. In the past, the NSA could not easily watch messages that traveled through Internet connections in America. Under the new plan, if the sender and recipient were suspected of terorrism, the NSA could surveil those messages, Eichenwald reports.

One of the most troubling sections of "500 Days" explains how the NSA's plan would conduct analysis on four billion public documents online—using American databases. These databases included everyday property and airplane ownership records, phone numbers, along with boat and car registrations. Telephone and broadband companies, too, would be encouraged to share information with the government, he writes.

Eichenwald points out that there were rules in place to prevent spying on individual E-mail, and the data was to be looked at in totality, to find unusual behavior and trends.

But "whatever the intent, the proposal was explosive," he writes. "If the public learned of it, administration officials might be slammed for violating the Fourth Amendment as a result of having listened in on calls to people inside the country and collecting so much personal data."

"Still, the proposed program intrigued Cheney," he writes.

The secretive program, known only to a handful of people within the White House, was given the code name "Stellar Wind." Eichenwald reports that while lawyers from the NSA and CIA expressed reservations about the plan, President George W. Bush was soon ready to approve it.

Another troubling revelation from "500 Days": It was only three weeks after the plan was approved and operating that research and analysis was done to see if the administration was breaking the law.

The administration later disclosed the NSA's new powers to the public, one of several admissions that contributed to Bush having the lowest approval rating of any departing president, at 22 percent.

Today, Stellar Wind is not a decommissioned program, but it is a changed one. The U.S. does, however, still use warrantless wiretapping.

"It has fallen off the radar screen," Eichenwald told Whispers of why wiretapping isn't talked about any more. "And we have a choice: Do people want to step back and say that 'If a terrorist calls the U.S., we don't want to be able to do anything about it?' "

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at eflock@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.