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President Bush's top intelligence officials nearly resigned over NSA surveillance concerns

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nsa (chris hardle flickr)
nsa (chris hardle flickr)

Nine years ago, top officials in the Justice Department and FBI threatened to resign over then-President George W. Bush's sweeping domestic surveillance policy, which they believed to be illegal. As the Washington Post reports, acting attorney general James Comey, FBI director Robert Mueller, and top leadership in the Justice Department began drafting resignation letters in March of 2004, after the National Security Agency (NSA), at Bush's direction, began collecting metadata on emails and Skype calls sent and placed within the US.

Their threats ultimately forced Bush to back off his plans, marking the end of STELLARWIND — the moniker for four government surveillance programs that expanded the NSA's reach to American citizens and US territory. STELLARWIND was ultimately replaced with four other intelligence gathering channels, including the PRISM program uncovered by whistleblower Edward Snowden earlier this month.

Bush's collection of web metadata triggered resignation threats

According to the Post, it was Bush's collection of internet metadata that triggered the threatened resignations from Comey — widely believed to be President Barack Obama's nominee for FBI director — and Jack Goldsmith, of the Office of Legal Counsel. Lawyers for the NSA had argued that they were within the law because domestic email metadata can't be technically "acquired" until analysts run searches against it. At the time, the Bush administration had only authorized metadata collection "for communications with at least one communicant outside the United States or for which no communicant was known to be a citizen of the United States."

Comey and Goldsmith found the NSA's argument tenuous, and threatened to resign over it. (A high-ranking NSA official tells the Post that the agency's policy no longer relies on this logic.) Bush at first pushed forward with the program, even after Comey ordered a halt to it, but ultimately reversed course after Mueller threatened to resign. That sparked the demise of STELLARWIND, which also included telephone data collection, though the programs that replaced it are capable of spanning a broad spectrum of communications.