WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush is toiling to reassure millions of ordinary folks that his National Security Agency spies are not listening in on their phone calls.

“We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans,” he pleaded in a speech at Mississippi Community College in Biloxi, May 11. But USA Today reported earlier that same day that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth have been feeding the NSA phone records of tens of millions of people who are not suspected of any crime.

The story says top executives at the three phone companies agreed in 2001 to cooperate with the NSA, whose director at the time, Gen. Michael Hayden, has been an outspoken defender of warrantless spying. Bush has just named Hayden as the new CIA director. Senators promise to quiz Hayden on the NSA warrantless wiretapping during his confirmation hearings.

The USA Today report quotes an unnamed source saying that the NSA’s goal is “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders, “far more expansive than what the White House has acknowledged.” The article adds, “With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans.”

The presumed justification for the flagrantly intrusive call-watching program is the administration’s “war on terror.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) held up the USA Today article and said, “These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything. Where does it stop? Shame on us for being … so willing to rubberstamp anything this administration does.”

Shortly after the newspaper report was published, Qwest Communications said it was asked by the NSA to hand over phone records, but declined to do so, citing privacy concerns. A few days later, BellSouth and Verizon also denied they turned over records, although Verizon, at least, left open the possibility that MCI, a recent acquisition, may have done so. AT&T has said only that it complied with the law.

ABC News revealed this week that an unnamed source warned their reporters to “get new cell phones” because NSA is listening in on their interviews. Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra, the online newspaper of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), told the World, “ABC was investigating the CIA’s secret prisons in Eastern Europe. They were following a proud tradition of democratic journalism, uncovering government wrongdoing. To criminalize this through extra-legal examination of phone records is really outrageous.”

The Bush administration’s attitude toward the First Amendment’s freedom of the press clause “is the same as its attitude toward civil liberties in general,” Naureckas said: “We’re in a war and the rules don’t apply.”

But since Bush has proclaimed the war on terrorism to be endless, the Constitution could be suspended “for all of our lifetime,” he warned. “Freedom of the press is vital for people to stick up for. Without a free press, the chances of retaining all our other freedoms are very slim.”

Naureckas debunked the Bush-Cheney line that only terrorist suspects are targeted. Once Bush approved warrantless wiretaps, everyone became a target, “people who are organizing anti-Bush protests for example. There is no telling where this will stop.”

David MacMichael, a former CIA analyst and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, told the World the Bush administration is driven by a “law-enforcement mentality. They resent the Fourth Amendment, that they have to get a warrant. … They went to the major phone companies and told them: Time to go back 30 years to the Vietnam era when AT&T was doing the same thing.”

The aim of this surveillance, he charged, is to create a climate of fear so deep that people are afraid to sign petitions or join in antiwar marches. “For this administration, the Constitution, the law, is what they say it is. As Bush says, ‘I’m the decider.’ As we approach this election, we look forward to some restructuring of our two-party system, to alliances that will defend the Constitution.”

The American Civil Liberties Union announced May 11 that 72 lawmakers led by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) have filed a friend of the court brief in Michigan’s U.S. District Court asking that the NSA spying be declared illegal and ordering “its immediate and permanent halt.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of prominent journalists, scholars, attorneys and nonprofit organizations who have frequent telephone contacts with people in the Middle East.

“Since 2001, the NSA has been secretly intercepting the phone calls and e-mail communications of Americans without any judicial check and in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” said Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the ACLU.

Referring to the amicus brief filed by Conyers and others, she said, “Today’s support from so many leaders of our federal government shows that Americans will not tolerate the government snooping into their calls and e-mails without court approval.”

The lawmakers’ brief refutes point-by-point Bush administration arguments that the NSA snooping is legal, charging that the White House is “operating against the express, as well as the implied, will of Congress.”

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