Terror Watch: Last-Minute Letter

As the Senate began floor debate over the nomination of State Department Under Secretary John Bolton to be the American ambassador to the United Nations, an unusual public disagreement broke out between leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee over Bolton's handling of sensitive intelligence secrets.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Intelligence Committee's vice chairman and a presumed Bolton critic, suggested in a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Bolton may have mishandled sensitive National Security Agency material. But Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts insisted that Bolton's actions were totally proper and legitimate and that one of Bolton's most vehement public critics may have been responsible for improper State Department handling of NSA information.

Rules and procedures governing NSA, which runs a worldwide network of electronic eavesdropping stations and also breaks foreign governments' secret codes, require that the agency avoid deliberately monitoring the communications of American citizens. But in its routine monitoring of millions of international messages--telephone calls, faxes, e-mails, radio transmissions--American names are often inadvertently picked up. In that event, the NSA routinely masks the American names before forwarding the intercepts to intelligence "consumers" in other agencies. However, officials in other agencies who receive the intercepts can ask the NSA to "un-minimize" the names of Americans mentioned if such officials certify to the NSA--in writing--that they need the American names in order to "understand the foreign intelligence."

During Bolton's testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee several weeks ago, Sen. Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who is one of Bolton's fiercest congressional critics, caused a minor sensation when he asked Bolton whether he had ever asked the NSA to supply the names of American officials mentioned in intelligence intercepts. Bolton told the committee he did so on a couple of occasions.

Later, the State Department sent Dodd a letter disclosing that Bolton had in recent years requested that the NSA unmask American names in 10 raw-intercept reports. The State Department as a whole had requested similar information from the NSA nearly 500 times since May 2001. In this context, Bolton supporters argued, Bolton's 10 requests for unedited NSA intercepts were statistically insignificant.

Bolton's Democratic critics on the Foreign Relations Committee nonetheless continued to press the administration for further details on Bolton's dealings with the NSA. One committee member, Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, placed an informal "hold" on floor debate on Bolton's nomination until the administration provided more information.

In an apparent response to congressional pressure, Gen. Michael Hayden, NSA's outgoing director, who is now principal deputy to John Negroponte, the administration's new intelligence czar, subsequently gave a top-secret briefing to Rockefeller and the Intelligence Committee's GOP chairman, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, about Bolton's dealings with the NSA. In this briefing, according to Rockefeller's letter to the Foreign Relations Committee, Hayden allowed Rockefeller and Roberts to review the NSA intercept reports at the center of the Bolton controversy. However, according to Rockefeller, Hayden did not share with Rockefeller and Roberts the names of the Americans that the NSA had provided to Bolton. In all, Rockefeller said, Bolton's requests for 10 uncensored NSA reports would have involved the unmasking of the identities of "nineteen U.S. persons."

In his letter, Rockefeller said that based on the briefing he had received from General Hayden, he found "no evidence" that there was anything "improper" about how or why Bolton made his 10 requests for the NSA reports in which American names were uncensored. However, Rockefeller said that he was "troubled" by how Bolton had handled the uncensored NSA information after receiving it.

According to Rockefeller, in an interview with Intelligence Committee officials, Bolton's acting chief of staff, CIA analyst Frederick Fleitz, said that on at least one occasion Bolton allegedly shared the "unminimized identity information he received from the NSA" with another State Department official. Fleitz told the committee that Bolton "used the information he was provided ... in order to seek out the State Department official mentioned in the report to congratulate him." According to a congressional investigator working with Bolton critics, the substance of the NSA intercept report included a discussion between two foreigners who were discussing how an American official--presumably the one Bolton congratulated--had given them a hard time.

In his letter to the Foreign Relations Committee, Rockefeller indicated that he believes Bolton's use of the uncensored NSA information to congratulate a State Department official was "not in keeping" with Bolton's declaration to the NSA that he only wanted the censored information so he could better understand the meaning of the original intelligence report. Two congressional officials involved in Senate investigations of Bolton said that the underlying argument now being made by Bolton's critics was that if he was willing to ignore NSA rules and use uncensored NSA intercept information on Americans to congratulate someone, he might be equally willing to use similar top-secret information to undermine the work of a bureaucratic rival.

In support of Bolton's nomination, Intelligence Committee Chairman Roberts also sent a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declaring that there was nothing irregular in Bolton's requests for uncensored NSA intercepts. Roberts said that his investigation indicated that Bolton had only discussed the uncensored NSA information with "one other individual"--the American named in the NSA report--who was a person who "worked directly for Under Secretary Bolton, possessed the necessary security clearances, received and read the same intelligence report in the course of his duties, and understood that he was the 'U.S. person' referred to therein."

Moreover, Roberts's letter suggests that any misunderstandings about how Bolton handled the NSA information--and about whether he should have requested prior NSA permission before discussing it with his colleague--were the product of lax State Department procedures. According to Roberts, the State Department's intelligence bureau, which processed Bolton's requests for NSA data, did not normally supply people like Bolton with NSA memoranda specifying how the data should be handled. In fact, Roberts said, even though it was Bolton who requested one key uncensored NSA intercept, the State Department's intelligence office actually turned the document over to someone in Bolton's office, which was a technical violation of NSA rules. Roberts blamed the State Department's alleged procedural failings on Carl Ford, a former head of State Department intelligence. (Coincidentally or not, Ford was the only witness to give scathingly critical testimony against Bolton at his public confirmation hearing.) Roberts concluded that he could find "no evidence that there was anything improper about any aspect of Mr. Bolton's requests [from NSA] for minimized identities of U.S. persons." Bolton's office had no comment.

On Wednesday, the Senate opened floor debate on the Bolton nomination. But two Bolton critics on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Dodd and ranking Democrat Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, announced that unless the administration turned over additional information about the uncensored NSA intercepts to the committee, they might insist that the Senate hold a cloture vote, which would require 60 senators to approve a motion to halt debate, before calling a final vote on Bolton's confirmation. Several Senate Democratic aides said that they believed that Senate Republicans would have trouble finding 60 votes to cut off debate on Bolton's nomination if the administration failed to turn over additional information.

Democratic congressional sources said that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had indicated that he was pressing the administration for more information about Bolton's dealings with the NSA. If Bolton's nomination does not clear the Senate this week, the earliest a final vote could be held on his nomination would be after a weeklong Memorial Day recess.