WASHINGTON—The White House decision to order surveillance of international phone calls by U.S. citizens without a warrant violated longstanding practices and could undermine a key U.S. intelligence agency that's critical in the struggle against terrorists, former senior intelligence officials and other experts said this week.
The super-secret National Security Agency, which eavesdropped on the Soviet Union's leaders and scored other intelligence coups during the Cold War, has spent three decades recovering from domestic spying scandals in the 1970s.
Now, with its electronic ears and vast computer banks turned primarily to intercepting suspecting terrorists, the officials said they fear that the NSA once again will bear the brunt of congressional scrutiny and public outrage, complicating its mission.
"The damage it's done to NSA's reputation is almost irreversible in my view," said a longtime top intelligence official with intimate knowledge of the agency's workings.
Those concerns are part of a broader backlash in the intelligence community against some of the Bush administration's tactics in the war on terror.
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others argued that the president has wartime powers to establish military tribunals, hold detainees, use harsh interrogation techniques and conduct domestic surveillance.
But a growing number of current and former intelligence officers argue that these tactics have backfired and left the nation's spy agencies troubled and vulnerable to charges of abuse.
The officials said that morale in the CIA's Operations Directorate, the spy service, is plummeting and that some senior officials are leaving or planning to leave and others have declined to take assignments.
Some clandestine service officers, they said, are especially concerned that a political and public backlash against a secret White House directive that authorized the CIA to apprehend suspected terrorists in foreign countries and jail them in secret overseas prisons or send them to third countries for interrogation could damage the agency in much the same way that the spy scandals of the 1970s did.
"There's a lot of discomfort about the renditions," as the practice is called, said one of the officials. "History shows that we pay the price for doing what the White House tells us to do." The official and others quoted in this story spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear reprisal for criticism.
The NSA, based in Fort Meade, Md., is the nation's largest intelligence agency, with more money and people than the CIA. Part of the Defense Department, it intercepts, decodes and analyzes phone calls, e-mails, faxes and other communications, searching for terrorist plots, weapons deals, drug trafficking and other threats. It also supports combat operations in wartime.
Counterterrorism officials said it's played an invaluable role in battling al-Qaida and related groups, because intercepting their communications is often the only way to pre-empt them.
In the public—and Hollywood's—mind, the agency is often seen as an ominous Big Brother, an image best epitomized by the 1998 Will Smith movie "Enemy of the State."
The reality, former officials and NSA experts said, is far different. Under a 1978 law called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, elaborate procedures were put in place to ensure that the agency doesn't routinely spy on Americans.
In April, then-NSA Director Gen. Michael V. Hayden assured the Senate Intelligence Committee that the NSA is "the most aggressive agency in the intelligence community when it comes to protecting privacy."
Hayden, now the deputy director of national intelligence, defended Bush's warrant-less monitoring order during a White House briefing Monday. He was unavailable for further comment, his spokeswoman said. The NSA also declined comment.
But the former top officials said the recently revealed program, which sidestepped a secret court, violated longtime agency practices. Those were established after the revelation of the NSA's earlier abuses in operations code-named Minaret and Shamrock.
After the 1978 law was passed, the NSA issued an internal directive known as U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive 18, barring agency employees from eavesdropping on Americans in the United States, with few exceptions.
NSA employees are required to re-read the document every six months and sign a form stating that they've done so.
"As a Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) officer, it is continually drilled into us that the very first law chiseled in the SIGINT equivalent of the Ten Commandments is that `Thou shall not spy on American persons without a court order from FISA,'" said former NSA analyst Russell Tice.
If the NSA inadvertently intercepts the communications of a U.S. citizen or communications that mention a U.S. citizen, they are supposed to be destroyed. There are a handful of exceptions.
Intercepts of U.S. citizens that aren't destroyed go into a special database—code-named "Body Surf"—and the real names are masked, available only to a handful of people.
Bush, Hayden and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have defended the program to eavesdrop on calls without warrants, saying it involves only individuals suspected of associating with terrorist groups, lasts for a short time and is regularly reviewed.
The former officials and experts said that while the revelations so far come nowhere near the abuse of a generation ago, they fear that the public taint will be the same.
Former NSA Director Bobby Ray Inman, who helped push through the 1978 FISA law, said he worried that the agency is being unfairly tarred, with a "huge" impact on morale.
"They only act in accordance with law, and an executive order is law," Inman said, referring to the order Bush signed permitting warrant-less domestic surveillance. But he added: "Frankly, my experience over the years is that politicians don't worry about" the impact of their actions on intelligence agencies' morale.
"I've talked to a number of people over there since this came out ... and there is none of them that are happy about this and many who are upset," said author James Bamford, whose book "Puzzle Palace" was the first in-depth look at the NSA.
The revelations have hurt the NSA's morale because "this is an extremely deceptive program," Bamford said.
"Only a few people were told about it," he said. "Everyone else in the agency went around telling people that they don't spy on Americans. Around their back, they find out that the director has authorized that."
(John Walcott contributed.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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