President Barack Obama's promise to end warrantless wiretaps will be one of the most difficult for us to independently verify. After all, the government doesn't like to announce when it is secretly tapping phones. Nevertheless, we've noticed a few developments on this issue that we want to document.
The public first learned about warrantless wiretaps in 2005 thanks to coverage in the New York Times . The stories focused on the National Security Agency, which monitors foreign communications and intelligence. The New York Times revealed that the agency was monitoring phone and e-mail conversations of people in the United States who were communicating with people in other countries. This type of monitoring required a warrant, but President George W. Bush authorized it without warrants.
The Bush administration insisted the program was legal, though many people, particularly civil libertarians, disagreed. In 2008, Congress passed a law giving the administration the legal authority to do what it was doing anyway, and the law included retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that had allowed the government to tap into into networks, so their customers couldn't sue them for privacy violations. Obama, then a senator, voted in favor of this bill, a move we ruled was a flip-flop because he previously said he would filibuster any law that called for telecom immunity.
The warrantless wiretapping program came back into the news this week when the New York Times reported that the National Security Agency was still monitoring Americans, but violating the terms of the new authority it got from Congress in 2008.
"Several intelligence officials, as well as lawyers briefed about the matter, said the NSA had been engaged in 'overcollection' of domestic communications of Americans. They described the practice as significant and systemic, although one official said it was believed to have been unintentional," the April 15 story said. Read the whole story here .
The New York Times relied on anonymous sources because the sources were discussing classified information. We don't use anonymous sources at PolitiFact, but we're citing the New York Times work here because no officials have contradicted their reports and because the newspaper's previous reporting on the matter has proved correct.
The story also said that Attorney General Eric Holder "went to the national security court to seek a renewal of the surveillance program only after new safeguards were put in place."
Responding to the New York Times ' reporting, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she would hold a hearing on the matter within a month.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and a member of the committee, said new laws were needed to address warrantless wiretapping.
"Congress must get to work fixing these laws that have eroded the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding citizens," he said.
Obama's promise indicates he would support revisiting the laws governing surveillance, and we'll be monitoring this issue to see what happens next. Right now, we feel it's too early to make a ruling, so we leave the Obameter at No Action.