The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee is looking into allegations that a U.S. spy agency improperly eavesdropped on the phone calls of hundreds of Americans overseas, including aid workers and U.S. military personnel talking to their spouses at home.
The allegations, by two former military intercept officers assigned to the National Security Agency, include claims that U.S. spies routinely listened in on intimate conversations and sometimes shared the recordings with each other. At least some of the snooping was done under relaxed eavesdropping rules approved by the Bush administration to facilitate spying on terrorists.
The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), yesterday termed the accusations “extremely disturbing” and said his staff had begun gathering information and may consider holding hearings. “Any time there is an allegation regarding abuse of the privacy and civil liberties of Americans, it is a very serious matter,” he said.
The alleged intercepts were described by two linguists who said they witnessed the activity while assigned to the NSA’s giant eavesdropping station known as Back Hall at Fort Gordon, Ga. Adrienne Kinne, 31, a former Army reservist, was an intercept operator at the site from 2001 to 2003, while Navy linguist David Murphee Faulk, 39, held a similar position from 2003 to 2007. Both provided accounts to investigative journalist James Bamford for his book “The Shadow Factory,” due for release next week, and also in interviews with ABC News.
Both said the NSA’s intercept program was intended to pick up intelligence about terrorists and their plans — which sometimes happened. But the operators also would frequently tap into phone calls by Americans living abroad — usually satellite phone calls made from the Middle East, or routine calls made by U.S. military personnel from phones in Baghdad’s Green Zone, they said in interviews broadcast yesterday.
Faulk said some of his fellow operators, after stumbling upon a titillating conversation, couldn’t wait to let their friends in on it.
“There’s good phone sex or there’s some pillow talk — pull it up, it’s really funny,” Faulk told ABC, recalling conversations between operators.
While declining to give specifics, an NSA spokesman said some of the allegations were currently under investigation, while others had been “found to be unsubstantiated.”
“We operate in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations and with the highest standards of integrity and lawful action,” said chief spokesman Patrick Bumgardner. He added that any evidence of misconduct would bring a “swift and certain” response.
A U.S. intelligence official familiar with the reports noted that two internal investigations, by the inspectors general of the NSA and the Army, were unable to substantiate the allegations by Kinne. The official spoke on the condition that he not be identified, citing the secret nature of the intercept program.
The official noted that the NSA is legally allowed to monitor communications of government employees in war zones, and he acknowledged that agency spies assigned to intercept foreign communication will sometimes “encounter information to, from or about” U.S. citizens. But the agency’s policies bar it from retaining or sharing any intercepted conversations between Americans that do “not constitute foreign intelligence,” he said.