Who's Reading Your E-Mail?

By Dan Froomkin
9:03 AM ET, 06/17/2009

Talk about unknown unknowns.

When it comes to torture, we have a pretty good idea of what it is we still don't know. But when it comes to that other massive abuse committed by the Bush administration in the name of counter-terrorism -- the warrantless surveillance of American citizens -- we still know very little about what was done, what was stopped, and, even worse, what's still going on.

A bitter reminder comes today in the form of a somewhat cryptic New York Times article alleging that e-mail messages in particular have been and are still being swept up into massive NSA databases in ways that even the notoriously obliging folks on the secret FISA court and in Congress are finding disturbing.

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau write:

The National Security Agency is facing renewed scrutiny over the extent of its domestic surveillance program, with critics in Congress saying its recent intercepts of the private telephone calls and e-mail messages of Americans are broader than previously acknowledged, current and former officials said.

Lichtblau and Risen wrote in April that the N.S.A. had been engaged in "overcollection" of domestic communications of Americans. Since then, they write today,

several Congressional committees have been investigating. Those inquiries have led to concerns in Congress about the agency’s ability to collect and read domestic e-mail messages of Americans on a widespread basis, officials said. Supporting that conclusion is the account of a former N.S.A. analyst who, in a series of interviews, described being trained in 2005 for a program in which the agency routinely examined large volumes of Americans’ e-mail messages without court warrants. Two intelligence officials confirmed that the program was still in operation.

Overcollection on a large scale

could lead to a significant number of privacy invasions of American citizens, officials acknowledge, setting off the concerns among lawmakers and on the secret FISA court.

And shedding some light on one of the greatest mysteries about the government's secret surveillance program, Risen and Lichtblau write:

Current and former officials now say that the tracing of vast amounts of American e-mail traffic was at the heart of a crisis in 2004 at the hospital bedside of John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, as top Justice Department aides staged a near revolt over what they viewed as possibly illegal aspects of the N.S.A.’s surveillance operations.

Finally, lest you think the NSA can simply be trusted not to abuse its access to a massive database of domestic e-mails, Lichtblau and Risen report that a former analyst told them that he had been informed that another analyst had at one point improperly accessed the personal e-mail of former President Bill Clinton.

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