New reports suggest domestic spying programs approved by U.S. president George Bush to look for terrorist activity appear to be much larger than the White House has acknowledged. As VOA's Mil Arcega reports, the growing controversy could set the stage for a showdown between the White House and Congress over the limits of presidential power.
The New York Times says the National Security Agency along with major telecommunications firms have been monitoring large numbers of electronic communications, more than has been previously disclosed. And the NSA is apparently doing so without the required court approval.
Author James Bamford, who has written several books on the government's investigative practices, describes the process as "data-mining." "It's a vacuum cleaner approach to virtually millions of communications an hour and nobody knows what they're doing with it."
The newspaper report contradicted earlier statements by President Bush who said the monitoring was far from widespread and only targeted known terrorist suspects.
"The program is limited in nature to those that are known to have Al-Qaida ties and or affiliates," the president said.
Mr. Bush, who left for Crawford, Texas after spending Christmas Day at the White House, had no comment on the latest reports, but some national leaders are growing increasingly vocal.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson, a long-time peace activist and civil libertarian, demanded a full investigation and said the president must tell the public who is being spied on. "If that is determined to not be constitutional, he must in fact face impeachment. We cannot stand idly by and let our democracy be undermined by fascist practices."
And Muslim groups in the United States say they're being unfairly targeted. The Washington-based Council on American Islamic Relations is filing a formal request to review the president's executive orders authorizing the surveillance of Americans without a court approval.
But former Secretary of State Colin Powell defended the domestic spying program, saying the president has an obligation to protect Americans. Speaking on an ABC television news program, Mr. Powell acknowledged the president could have obtained court authorization before or even after the wiretaps but said he saw nothing wrong with the president's use of secret electronic surveillance.
"The nation is not going to collapse over this issue,” said Mr. Powell. “What the president is determined to do, and what the Congress and the American people want him to do, is to protect us from terrorism. And if eavesdropping does that, then more power to it."
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, allows investigators to wiretap before getting a warrant, as long as they file for permission within 72 hours.
Since 1979, the secret court has received nearly 19,000 requests from the U.S. Justice Department, and has turned down only four cases.