Bush's Spying: Scandalous, or Echo of Clinton-Era "Echelon"?

Travel caused me to miss Friday's big lead scoop in the New York Times on domestic spying by the National Security Agency ("Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts"), but the rest of the blogosphere took the story on from multiple angles, questioning the pieces timing, agenda, even its newsworthiness.

The Times article no doubt had the effect the paper intended, throwing the White House on the defensive and causing the renewal of the Patriot Act to be thwarted, a long-time goal of the Times editorial page.

But is this sort of terrorist surveillance truly a new and troubling thing? The government's Echelon spy program was reported on during the Clinton administration, in a 2000 report on CBS's "60 Minutes." In words that ring familiar, host Steve Kroft intoned:

"If you made a phone call today or sent an e-mail to a friend, there's a good chance what you said or wrote was captured and screened by the country's largest intelligence agency. The top-secret Global Surveillance Network is called Echelon, and it's run by the National Security Agency and four English-speaking allies: Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The mission is to eavesdrop on enemies of the state: foreign countries, terrorist groups and drug cartels. But in the process, Echelon's computers capture virtually every electronic conversation around the world."

This is what the Times reported Friday:

"Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the [National Security Agency] agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said."

Not that Bush and Republicans are content with the Times' revelations. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas accuses the Times of (as the AP puts it), "endangering American security to sell a book by waiting until the day of the terror-fighting Patriot Act reauthorization to report that the government has eavesdropped on people without court-approved warrants."

Cornyn was referring to a book by Times reporter and story author James Risen, whose book "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush administration" will be published by the Free Press in January. The Times failed to make a note of that in its Friday story.

John Hinderaker at Power Line sees a Valerie Plame parallel: "How does the Times know this? Because intelligence officials who are hostile to the Bush administration, and disagree with its policies, leaked the information….Under the Plame precedent, this case is a no-brainer. The intelligence officials who leaked to the Times should be identified, criminally prosecuted, and sent to prison."

One wonders if the Times will get behind that prosecution as vigorously as they did when it was Cheney aide I. Lewis Libby in the spotlight.

The Confederate Yankee accuses Risen and Lichtblau, in their Monday followup story, of "sensationalizing the scope of Bush's executive order" and has more useful background on Bush's legal justification of using surveillance against terror suspects.

For more New York Times bias, visit TimesWatch.

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