Bloomberg News

NSA’s Spying Dragnet Dates to Al-Qaeda Hunt, U.S. Records Show

December 22, 2013

Computer Cables

Phone operators such as Vodafone Group Plc and Orange SA and providers of Internet computing services like Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Systems have started stressing that stricter European laws on privacy make the region a safer place to store client data. Photographer: Mario Proenca/Bloomberg

U.S. surveillance of bulk communications now under review by the Obama administration was first authorized by President George W. Bush after Sept. 11, 2001, and has been defended as “critically important” to national security, declassified records show.

Bush renewed the program for collection of telephone-call records every 30 to 60 days beginning Oct. 4, 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks. That program and another involving Internet communications were brought under jurisdiction of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by 2007, National Intelligence Director James Clapper said yesterday.

Clapper said the agency was declassifying records on the existence of the surveillance programs under Bush in compliance with the court’s order following their disclosure by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

National security officials in both the Bush and Barack Obama administrations said the collection of bulk telephone records of Americans helped uncover terrorist plots, according to the records. That assertion appears to counter findings of an advisory panel that recommended Obama change the program Dec. 18 because the data “was not essential to preventing attacks” and “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional” court orders, the panel wrote.

A former intelligence director under Bush, Mike McConnell, called the data collection “among the most important intelligence tools available to the United States for protecting the homeland from another catastrophic terrorist attack,” according to one of the records, McConnell’s testimony in a lawsuit challenging the program.

January Decision

The five-member Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology recommended that spying on telephone and online communications be allowed to continue, though with limits on how much data can be collected and stored.

Obama told reporters Dec. 20 that he would act next month on the panel’s recommendations.

“What we’re doing now is evaluating all of the recommendations that have been made,” Obama said at the news conference, before leaving for a vacation in Hawaii. “I’m going to make a pretty definitive statement about all of this in January.”

Snowden, who is now in Russia under temporary asylum, leaked records about the spy programs to news organizations starting in June. Since then, there have been calls by U.S. allies overseas, members of Congress, civil liberties groups and companies such as Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. (FB:US) to provide more transparency and scale back some of the operations.

Al-Qaeda Plots

The al-Qaeda terrorist group that attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11 and brought down the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York City has “consistently focused plotting against U.S. interests on either conducting spectacular attacks against the homeland or striking other symbolic or economic targets,” Dennis Blair, Obama’s first director of national intelligence, said in his testimony in another court case.

U.S. troops killed the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, in 2011.

Blair said the data collection was “critically important” to uncovering any future plots.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Elizabeth Wasserman at

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