Warrantless Wiretaps: Were They Valuable?

Bush and Cheney thought so, but some Justice Department officials said they were illegal.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The warrantless wiretapping program approved by the Bush administration filled gaps in US intelligence-gathering ability. But many government officials considered it just one tool among many, and believed that traditional espionage methods produced more useful intelligence information.

That is one of the conclusions from a just-released US government report on President Bush's controversial domestic surveillance efforts.

According to CIA officials, much of the intelligence reporting derived from this effort "was vague or without context, which led analysts and targeting officers to rely more heavily on other information sources and analytic tools," according to the report, which was prepared by the Inspectors General from five US government departments.

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This conclusion undercuts some of the claims made by top administration officials in support of the program.

For instance, Vice President Dick Cheney at one point warned a Department of Justice official who was reluctant to approve the program's legality that "thousands of lives" were at stake if the eavesdropping efforts did not continue.

The report is the result of hundreds of interviews conducted by the Inspectors General of the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Among other things, it adds more detail to the well-known struggle that occurred in 2004 between some Department of Justice officials, who felt that portions of the programs as authorized did not pass legal muster, and the White House, which pressed hard for Justice officials to continue to approve the program's operation.

According to the report, the officials who balked – including Deputy Attorney General James Comey, among others – felt that existing legal analysis of the program described its operations incorrectly.

Perhaps more importantly, that analysis also said that laws governing federal wiretap efforts did not take into account the need for quick action in the event of war, when they clearly did, Deputy Attorney General Comey felt.

Comey told investigators that he felt "the legal analysis entailed ignoring an act of Congress, and doing so without full congressional notification".

Comey threatened to resign over the issue. He withdrew that threat after President Bush gave his support to changing the wiretap effort.

The report also notes that at the time he launched the warrantless wiretap effort, President Bush authorized other secret surveillance activities that have yet to be made public. All these efforts together are named the "President's Surveillance Program", according to the report.

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