WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee is examining allegations by two former U.S. military linguists that the super-secret National Security Agency routinely eavesdropped on the private telephone calls of American military officers, journalists and aid workers.
NSA interceptors purportedly shared some intercepts of highly personal conversations, including "phone sex."
If the allegations are true, they could re-ignite a political firestorm over the administration's post-9/11 eavesdropping operations and its efforts to collect vast quantities of data about Americans' tax, medical and travel records; credit card purchases; e-mails and other information.
President Bush and other senior officials have repeatedly asserted that after the 9/11 attacks; the NSA only monitored the private communications of Americans who were suspected of links to al Qaida or other terrorist groups without court orders.
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The allegations follow the release Tuesday of a study by a government advisory group that questions how useful communications intercepts and another technique known as data mining are at ferreting out terrorist plots.
"The information sought by analysts must be filtered out of the huge quantity of data available (the needle in the haystack problem)," says two-year, 352-page study by the National Research Council for the Department of Homeland Security. "Terrorist groups will make calculated efforts to conceal their identity and mask their behaviors, and will use various strategies such as encryption, code words, and multiple identities to obfuscate the data they are generating and exchanging," the report says.
"Even under the pressure of threats as serious as terrorism, the privacy rights and civil liberties that are the cherished core values of our nation must not be destroyed," the report warns.
An ABC News report Thursday quoted two former military linguists saying that the country's largest intelligence agency routinely recorded calls to homes and offices by hundreds of American military officers, journalists and aid workers who were posted in the Middle East between 2001 and 2007.
The interviews were scheduled to air Thursday evening on ABC’s World News and Nightline programs, according to the report.
One of the two, Adrienne Kinne, 31, an Army Reserve Arabic linguist, spoke about the alleged monitoring of American journalists and aid workers in Iraq on the independent radio program “Democracy Now!” in May. The other former military linguist who spoke to ABC News was identified as former Navy Arabic linguist David Murfee Faulk, 39. He and Kinne worked at the NSA’s eavesdropping center at Fort Gordon, Ga.
Blogger David Swanson earlier interviewed both linguists.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the allegations "extremely disturbing." He said in a statement that the panel is examining the matter and has asked the administration for "all relevant information."
A comment from the White House wasn't immediately available. In a statement, the NSA said that "some of the allegations have been investigated and found to be unsubstantiated" and that "others are in the investigation process."
"When we find misconduct we take swift and certain remedial action. We operate in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations and with the highest standards of integrity and lawful action. Our activities are subject to strict scrutiny and oversight both from outside and inside NSA," the statement said.
Rockefeller noted that Congress this year passed legislation tightening NSA monitoring procedures following an outcry over the disclosure that after 9/11, the agency had begun intercepting the overseas communications of Americans without court orders under what the administration called the Terrorist Surveillance Program.
"The committee will take whatever action is necessary to ensure those rules are followed and any violations are addressed," Rockefeller said.
The ABC News story quoted former Navy Arabic linguist Faulk as saying that he and other intercept operators at the NSA facility at Fort Gordon monitored telephone calls by Americans in Baghdad's Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy, U.S. military headquarters, Iraqi government offices and some news organizations are located.
"Calling home to the United States, talking to their spouses, sometimes their girlfriends, sometimes one phone call following another," said Faulk, who served at Fort Gordon from late 2003 until November 2007.
The intercept operators shared recordings of salacious conversations and "phone sex" between U.S. military personnel and their wives or girlfriends, Faulk said.
He said he ended up feeling badly about what they were doing.
"I feel that it was something that the people should not have done. Including me," he was quoted as saying.
Kinne told ABC News that private conversations monitored by NSA operators included private calls by American journalists and aid workers.
"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," said Kinne, who described the calls as "personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism."
She worked at Fort Gordon for two years, beginning in November 2001.
Both linguists, who didn't know each other, were quoted as saying that their superiors rebuffed questions about the monitoring of U.S. citizens' private conversations.
Kinne said that "collecting" the calls of innocent Americans hobbled the NSA's ability to find genuine terrorism-related material among vast amounts of useless data.
"By casting the net so wide . . . it's harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody," she said, echoing the National Research Council's findings. "You're actually hurting out ability to effectively protect our national security."
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