The New York Times reported Friday that President Bush authorized a secretive U.S. intelligence agency to spy on some Americans and others inside the country suspected of terrorist links in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Bush administration officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would neither confirm nor deny The Times report.
The newspaper says President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to monitor the international phone calls and e-mails of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people inside the United States, including some American citizens, beginning in 2002.
The monitoring was done without the type of court order or warrants that law enforcement agencies are normally required to obtain to eavesdrop on American citizens or others living within the United States.
The eavesdropping was done as part of a government effort to identify those inside the country with possible links to terrorists.
Traditionally, the National Security Agency limits its domestic monitoring activities to foreign embassies and missions inside the United States.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said he would not comment on intelligence matters. But he did say that the president respects civil liberties as part of his effort to make the country safe.
"The president made a commitment that he would do everything in his power and within the law to prevent attacks and save lives," said Mr. McClellan. "He renewed that commitment more than ever after September 11. He also made a commitment that he would remain firmly committed to protecting the civil liberties of Americans and upholding our Constitution."
The Times report sparked an outcry from civil liberties activists and some legal experts.
"This is sort of a centerpiece of our Constitution, that we have the Fourth Amendment [to the Constitution] to prevent unreasonable search and seizures," said Caroline Fredrickson of the Washington office of American Civil Liberties Union. "The government is supposed to go through a process when it wants to use surveillance, particularly on an American citizen."
Some members of Congress also expressed alarm at The New York Times report. Republican Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants to hold hearings on the issue, calling the reported surveillance activities inappropriate.
Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts described the report as, in his words, Big Brother run amok.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona also expressed concern to reporters after meeting with President Bush on Iraq at the White House.
"We should be informed as to exactly what is going on and then find out whether an investigation is called for," said Senator McCain. "All we have is initial reports."
The Times report also sparked concern from some legal experts who question whether using an intelligence agency to spy on Americans is constitutional.
"The president, rather than follow even those minimal requirements (for domestic eavesdropping), has, in an unprecedented way, authorized domestic eavesdropping without meeting any of the Constitution's requirements," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of law and politics at Duke University Law School.
But Georgetown University expert Roy Godson has a different view.
"The reason why, I'm sure, the government was interested in doing this was to be able to quickly identify people who had been identified as being in contact with al-Qaida or others who could possibly be planning to attack the United States," said Mr. Godson.
The New York Times says government officials believe the monitoring helped to uncover several terrorist plots, including one that targeted the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.
But The Times also reported that some government officials were so concerned about the legality of the surveillance program that they declined to take part.
The Times says it delayed publication of the story for a year because the Bush administration argued that it could jeopardize ongoing terrorism investigations. The newspaper also says it kept some information out of the story that the administration contends would be helpful to terrorists.