Newsweek digs into the 2004 episode in which top White House officials unsuccessfully pressured Attorney General John Ashcroft in a hospital room to renew a massive domestic-spying program that was about to lapse. Newsweek says the dispute arose over a part of Bush’s espionage program that had nothing to do with the wiretapping of individual suspects. Senior Justice Department officials threatened to resign because of the vast and indiscriminate collection of communications data. The National Security Agency was able to vacuum up the records of calls and e-mails of tens of millions of average Americans between 2001 and 2004. The classified code name was “Stellar Wind.” The data was sifted using complex algorithms to detect patterns and links that might indicate terrorist activity.
Then-Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith concluded that the systematic collection and digital transmission of huge amounts of telephone and e-mail data constitutes “electronic surveillance” under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires a court-approved warrant. Therefore, the program was illegal. “At the end of the day, the dispute was a legal one, not a policy one,” says one participant. “It was about upholding the rule of law, not about what was appropriate from a civil-libertarian standpoint or any other standpoint.”