WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday disputed a newspaper report that the National Security Agency conducted more widespread intercepts of private U.S. conversations in 2008 and early this year than has been acknowledged.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that as far as she knows the NSA has not committed flagrant violations of the rules governing surveillance of American e-mails and phone calls. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a member of the Judiciary Committee, also questioned the accuracy of the story in The New York Times.
The Times quoted Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who chairs the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, as being very concerned about the extent that conversations were over collected and doubted that violations reported in April were accidental.
"Some actions are so flagrant that they can't be accidental," Holt told the newspaper.
Holt spokesman Zach Goldberg confirmed Holt's quotes and said he had "nothing to add or retract."
The New York Times said Wednesday it stands by its story. "Our article was based on numerous sources and we believe it is accurate," said spokeswoman Diane McNulty.
The Justice Department said in April that it had reined in NSA electronic surveillance after learning that the monitoring improperly accessed American phone calls and e-mails. Such intercepts require the approval of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge.
The House and Senate intelligence committees have looked at the April breach three times and are continuing to watch the program for potential problems, said a House congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because details about the NSA program are classified.
The House Intelligence Committee is expected to discuss the matter Thursday in a closed session debating the intelligence authorization act for fiscal year 2010.
The newspaper also reported the existence of a secret NSA program called Pinwale that archived foreign and American e-mail messages and allowed NSA analysts to read large volumes of the messages, provided Americans were not explicitly targeted in the searches.
Congress last year loosened the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to allow the government to access _ without a court order _ foreign e-mails and phone calls that are intercepted as they move through fiber optics cables in the United States.
Some Americans' e-mails are inadvertently scooped up by NSA as part of those intercepts. But those e-mails are supposed to be separated out and identifying markers removed to protect Americans' privacy.