The warrantless National Security Agency (NSA) electronic eavesdropping program known to only a handful of Bush administration officials by its code word "Stellar Wind" and by a few other Justice Department officials only as "The Program" routinely intercepted the communications and transactional data, including credit card usage, of journalists and public officials, according to sources familiar with the program.
The Stellar Wind program was considered so illegal by the Justice Department and FBI agents who knew about it, there was a belief that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft would be indicted for allowing the interception program to operate. Known also as the "Terrorist Surveillance Program," the warrantless wiretapping was authorized by President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 and had to be re-certified every 45 days. In March 2004, Deputy Attorney General James Comey, upon the determination of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, decided that certification would not occur because the program was deemed as illegal.
After Comey became acting Attorney General after Ashcroft went to George Washington University hospital suffering from acute pancreatitis, there was a now infamous scene of White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales demanding that a barely conscious Ashcroft re-certify "the program." Comey, with Ashcroft's wife by the bedside of her husband, were present as Card and Gonzales demanded that Ashcroft re-certify the surveillance program. Ashcroft said Comey was the attorney general. The min-rebellion within the top echelons of the Bush administration resulted in the White House re-authorizing the illegal Stellar Wind without the concurrence of the Department of Justice. Bush called his illegal surveillance program, using NSA to spy on innocent Americans, the "crown jewels of national security."
WMR has also learned that the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers, was, after the 2004 Ashcroft hospital scene, informed of the illegal wiretap program. Conyers took no action when informed by a contact within the Justice Department and replied in an email to the contact, "Whistleblowers don't fare very well."
Conyers also refused to take any action when NSA employees like Russell Tice, familiar with the illegal NSA program, validated the information about "The Program" that was coming from within the Justice Department. Congress, including then-Senator Barack Obama, then gave telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon, which were cooperating in the illegal NSA surveillance program by granting the firms immunity from prosecution. These telecommunications firms maintained a number of "secret rooms" at their major switching centers that allowed NSA to conduct illegal surveillance on Americans.
WMR has also learned that one of the main architects of the Stellar Wind program was Vice President Dick Cheney's then-chief counsel David Addington. Cheney and Addington decided to keep a number of details of the super-classified Stellar Wind program secret from the Congress. What we were told is that "Cheney did not view Congress as a co-equal branch" of the executive. The so-called "unitary executive," which has powers greater than the legislative and judicial branches in violation of the U.S. Constitution, was an idea that was being pushed by Addington and other officials within the Bush White House.
WMR has also discovered that Addington once joked about "blowing up the FISA Court."
Sources have also told WMR that there was a "pre-disposition" by the Bush White House to implementing Stellar Wind prior to 9/11. Cheney was also particularly fond of using NSA to illegally spy on Americans. The Stellar Wind program was so classified that Comey's predecessor as Deputy Attorney General, Larry Thompson, was never "read into" the special access program that minimally required a Top Secret/Special Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) security clerance along with clearance to the Stellar Wind program.
WMR has learned from informed sources familiar with Stellar Wind that it was used to create a Richard Nixon-style "enemies list" and that one of the victims of the surveillance of his transactional data and communications traffic was New York's then-Governor Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer's Internet web page visits, e-mails, credit card transactions, and phone calls were all used by the Bush administration to discover his activities with a New York escort service and bring about his humiliation and resignation from office.
The NSA, when it learned something juicy about a public official like Spitzer, would scrub the information of all "intelligence sources and methods" information, including the involvement of companies like AT&T and Verizon, and provide it to Justice Department prosecutors for action or White House political operatives for a political sting operation targeting the individual eavesdropped upon.
There is also reason to believe that Stellar Wind was used to eavesdrop on Illinois Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich, New Mexico Democratic Governor Bill Richardson, New Jersey Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, former North Carolina Democratic Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, and then-Illinois Democratic Senator and current President Barack Obama to "dig up" political dirt by the Bush-Cheney White House.
Others on the Bush-Cheney enemies list subject to surveillance were certainly those opposed to the Iraq War, Ironically, one of those who may have been subjected to NSA surveillance was the late former NSA director under Ronald Reagan, General William Odom, one of the earliest retired military top brass who came out publicly in opposition to the Iraq war.
It is important to note that while the NSA and White House Stellar Wind operation "minimized" intelligence reports, in a normal and legal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant, there is no such minimization of sources and methods. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants must be specific as to their relevance to a counter-intelligence or counter-terrorism investigation. However, the illegal Stellar Wind reports merely provided incriminating information without providing sources, methods, or justification information since no judicial concurrence was necessary. Under a FISA warrant, a target may only be wiretapped for 90 days in foreign counterintelligence cases. WMR has learned that during the Bush administration, FISA warrants were obtained by NSA on a number of foreign dignitaries visiting the United States. In addition, FISA warrants were issued for anyone, including American citizens, with Middle Eastern names who traveled to the Middle East. The warrants were requested even though there was no evidence that they were connected to any terrorist organizations.
WMR has also learned that John Bolton, while Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, used Stellar Wind to target a number of U.S. ambassadors, especially those career diplomats who were known to privately oppose the Bush administration's war against Iraq. One of those ambassadors was likely John Danforth, former Republican Senator from Missouri, who resigned in December 2004 as U.S. ambassador to the UN after less than six months in office. Danforth cited "policy differences" with the State Department. Danforth's resignation followed by a few weeks that of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was also subjected to NSA eavesdropping.
WMR previously reported that Bolton received NSA transcripts of phone conversations between his boss, Powell, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson concerning back channel nuclear talks with North Korean diplomats in New York.
We have also learned that journalists were "high on the list" for surveillance by the Bush White House under the Stellar Wind program. In December 2005, WMR first reported on a CIA/NSA program called Firstfruits that was authorized in October 2004 that was a "database that contained both the articles and the transcripts of telephone and other communications of particular Washington journalists known to report on sensitive U.S. intelligence activities, particularly those involving NSA." Targeted journalists, reported by NSA sources, included targeted journalists included author James Bamford, the New York Times' James Risen, the Washington Post's Vernon Loeb, the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, the Washington Times' Bill Gertz, UPI's John C. K. Daly, and this editor [Wayne Madsen].
Risen was one of the New York Times journalists who first became aware of the illegal NSA intercept program. The other was Eric Lichtblau, the author of Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice.