The National Security Agency has eavesdropped, without warrants, on as many 500 people inside the United States at any given time since 2002, The New York Times reported Friday.
That year, following the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush authorized the NSA to monitor the international phone calls and international e-mails of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States, the Times reported.
Before the new program began, the NSA typically limited its domestic surveillance to foreign embassies and missions and obtained court orders for such investigations. Overseas, 5,000 to 7,000 people suspected of terrorist ties are monitored at one time.
The Times said reporters interviewed nearly a dozen current and former administration officials about the program and granted them anonymity because of the classified nature of the program.
The NSA coordinates, directs, and performs highly specialized activities to protect U.S. government information systems and produce foreign intelligence information.
Government officials credited the new program with uncovering several terrorist plots, including one by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker who pleaded guilty in 2003 to supporting al Qaeda by planning to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, the report said.
But some NSA officials were so concerned about the legality of the program that they refused to participate, the Times said. Questions about the legality of the program led the administration to temporarily suspend it last year and impose new restrictions.
"We're finding out that the president has possibly authorized the breaking of the law so that our government can eavesdrop on American citizens?" Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, told CBS Radio News. "We're still trying to process it, but it's truly amazing."
"This is sort of a centerpiece of our Constitution that we have the Fourth Amendment to prevent unreasonable search and seizures. The government is supposed to go through a process when it wants to use surveillance, particularly on an American citizen," Fredrickson added.
Asked about the administration's contention that the eavesdropping has disrupted terrorist attacks, Fredrickson said the ACLU couldn't comment until it sees some evidence. "They've veiled these powers in secrecy so there's no way for Congress or any independent organizations to exercise any oversight."
CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller reports the White House will neither confirm nor deny the report of domestic eavesdropping by the NSA, declaring sensitive intelligence gathering is involved. Spokesman Scott McClellan says the president remains fully committed to upholding the constitution and civil liberties.
On Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also asked about the program, and she reiterated the White House's message.
"I'm not going to comment on intelligence matters," she told NBC's "Today" show. But Rice did say that President Bush "has always said he would do everything he can to protect the American people, but within the law, and with due regard for civil liberties because he takes seriously his responsibility."
"The president acted lawfully in every step that he has taken," Rice said, "to defend the American people and to defend the people within his constitutional responsibility."
Earlier this week, the Pentagon said it was reviewing its use of a classified database of information about suspicious people and activity inside the United States after a report by NBC News said the database listed activities of anti-war groups that were not a security threat to Pentagon property or personnel.
Pentagon spokesmen declined to discuss the matter on the record but issued a written statement Wednesday evening that implied, but did not explicitly acknowledge, that some information had been handled improperly.
The Bush administration had briefed congressional leaders about the NSA program and notified the judge in charge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret Washington court that handles national security issues.
An aide to West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CBS News the senator will not comment on the program today. An aide to National Intelligence Director John Negroponte declined to comment Thursday night.
CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante reports news of the program comes as a Capitol Hill showdown is expected Friday over the Bush administration's key domestic law for fighting terrorism, the Patriot Act. A bipartisan group of senators is threatening a filibuster, because they believe a compromise already agreed to gives the government too much power.
The Times said it delayed publication of the report for a year because the White House said it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. The Times said it omitted information from the story that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists.
Earlier this week, NBC News reported it had obtained a document generated by an obscure Pentagon agency that analyzes intelligence reports on suspicious domestic activity. The 400-page document included at least 20 references to U.S. citizens, plus information on anti-war meetings and protests.
The Pentagon said Wednesday that Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, had ordered a full review of the system for handling such information to ensure that it complies with Pentagon policies and federal law.