Risen: NSA tried to wiretap Congressman without warrant
David Edwards and Joe Byrne
Published: Friday April 17, 2009

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Broad legal limits set by Congress last year were exceeded in recent months by the National Security Agency, reported James Risen and Eric Lichtblau in Wednesday's New York Times.

A segment on Keith Olbermann's Countdown on Thursday featured Risen, who re-stated his claim that the NSA tried to tap the communications of a congressman, but were halted at the last moment from doing so. When Olbermann pressed Risen for more details about the congressman, Risen responded, "A very senior U.S. intelligence official with direct knowledge of this, a person I can‘t identify, gave us this information and unfortunately, we haven‘t been able to identify the congressman yet. But we do know that it occurred overseas and that the NSA had already begun to eavesdrop on someone else who was traveling with the congressman, and then wanted to go up and eavesdrop directly on the congressman, but was blocked at the last minute."

The article by Risen and Lichtblau detailed the problems associated with the high-tech surveillance system. "Intelligence officials said that the problems have grown out of changes enacted by Congress last July in the law that regulates the government’s wiretapping powers, and the challenges posed by enacting a new framework for collecting intelligence on suspected terrorists and spies.

"While N.S.A.’s operations in recent months have come under examination, new details are also emerging about earlier domestic surveillance activities, including the agency’s attempt to wiretap a congressman without court approval on an overseas trip, according to interviews with current and former intelligence officials."

The changes in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) made by Congress last July had to do with granting immunity to corporations like AT&T who were supplying the data to the government and to extend the legal limit of warrantless wiretapping from 48 hours to a week. After a week, the NSA has to take their case to the FISA court for approval.

Olbermann asked Risen how big he thought the NSA wiretapping program has become. “We’re still trying to figure that out,” Risen responded. “What we do know is over the last few months there has been increasing concern both at the Justice Department and in congress over what appears to be just an inability of the NSA to stay within the legal limits that were established by the new FISA bill last summer. They’re collecting far more domestic e-mail and telephone traffic than they’re supposed to under the — even the very broad and relaxed regulations that were imposed last year. It makes it — it appears to be a problem of the inability of the NSA to distinguish between foreign and domestic communications. but the technical details, we’re still trying to determine.”

Risen closed the segment with a judgment of the Bush administration's lack of control over the program. “President Bush and other members of his administration kept saying, 'Trust us, we have very tight controls over this program.' I think what this shows is that the controls are much more lax than they ever wanted to admit, and that the spying on Americans may have gone far beyond anything we realized before.”

This video is from MSNBC's Countdown, broadcast Apr. 16, 2009.

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