Civil Liberties

Spying on Innocents Abroad

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Two former military intercept operators, both Arab linguists, have independently told ABC News that the National Security Agency routinely listens to the telephone conversations of innocent Americans in the Middle East, including soldiers, aid workers, and journalists, when they call people in the United States. "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," one said. She described the conversations as "personal, private things [involving] Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism." The other whistleblower said intercept operators would often share especially risqué or amusing conversations, including calls to spouses and girlfriends, with each other. "Hey, check this out," he said colleagues  at the NSA center in Fort Gordon, Georgia, would tell him, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk."  As ABC notes, this sort of idle snooping is rather different from the sort of by-the-book professionalism that Bush administration officials have repeatedly insisted characterizes the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program:

"There is a constant check to make sure that our civil liberties of our citizens are treated with respect," said President Bush at a news conference this past February….

In testimony before Congress, then-NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden, now director of the CIA, said private conversations of Americans are not intercepted.

"It's not for the heck of it. We are narrowly focused and drilled on protecting the nation against al Qaeda and those organizations who are affiliated with it," Gen. Hayden testified.

He was asked by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), "Are you just doing this because you just want to pry into people's lives?"

"No, sir," General Hayden replied.

In June I noted that Barack Obama supported the legislation that gave the executive branch permission to monitor Americans' international communications at will, while John McCain seems to think the president did not need Congress' permission.

[Thanks to Tricky Vic for the tip.]