NSA 'Talking Points' Memo Irks Democrats

Democrats want the National Security Agency to stick to snooping, not politicking.

The spy agency recently sent the Senate Intelligence Committee a list of approved talking points about its warrantless eavesdropping program. But the panel's seven Democrats bridled, saying in a letter to the agency's director that the document was riddled with "subjective statements that appear intended to advance a particular policy view and present certain facts in the best possible light."

They are accusing the supersecret agency of inappropriately engaging in policy debate. Intelligence agencies are supposed to stay out of politics.

The Democrats also say the Bush administration is failing to keep its promise to provide the committee with all the information it needs to oversee the controversial terrorism surveillance program.

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Responding to a growing public debate about government surveillance of international communications, members of Congress asked the NSA what they could say publicly without running afoul of secrecy laws. In July, the agency suggested comments, including:

—"I have personally met the dedicated men and women of the NSA. The country owes them an enormous debt of gratitude for their superb efforts to keep us all secure."

—"I can say that the program must continue. It has detected plots that could have resulted in death or injury to Americans both at home and abroad."

—"It is being run in a highly disciplined way that takes great pains to protect U.S. privacy rights. There is strict oversight in place, both at the NSA and outside, now including the full congressional intelligence committees."

The letter and the NSA's talking points were obtained by The Associated Press.

Lawmakers have been trying to pin down the administration on specific details about the eavesdropping program, including the number of terrorists who have been identified or potential attacks that have been averted.

"I find it outrageous that the administration is encouraging senators to say that the NSA program has been effective in detecting plots in the U.S. and saving lives, while refusing to provide the committee with sufficient evidence to back up that claim," West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the intelligence panel's top Democrat, said in a statement Tuesday.

The seven senators said they haven't been given documents and other basic information, despite an administration promise made in May to give the committee complete access. At the time, the White House was trying to secure Senate approval of Gen. Michael Hayden's nomination to be CIA director. Hayden headed the NSA in 2001 and has been one of the eavesdropping program's chief defenders.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, President Bush ordered the NSA to monitor communications potentially related to al-Qaida between people in the U.S. and overseas. He bypassed normal requirements for court approval of such eavesdropping, and the program came under harsh criticism after it was disclosed in December.

The NSA defended the talking points, which were approved by its director, Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander.

"The talking points were intended to be informative and supportive of all the members of our oversight committees in the House and the Senate," NSA spokesman Don Weber said. "They were provided as suggestions as to what could be said in an unclassified forum."

William Nolte, a recently retired intelligence veteran who served as the NSA's chief of legislative affairs, said some of the talking points provide "perfectly appropriate" judgments. The NSA, he noted, should provide Congress with technical advice on potential legislative changes.

Yet, "I can understand why the Congress would get annoyed at what it sees as being lectured at on doing its job," said Nolte, a professor at the University of Maryland. Mixing that with substantive legislative issues "may have not been a good thing to do."

In the letter to the NSA, the senators said they were troubled by one statement that argued "current law is not agile enough to handle the threat posed by sophisticated international terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaida."

With Congress engaged in a debate over whether to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the future of the warrantless surveillance program, "we believe that it is inappropriate for the NSA to insert itself into this policy debate," the Democrats wrote.

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