How do you prove you've been eavesdropped upon if the National Security Agency's surveillance program is so secret? That's the legal challenge for plaintiffs in the first lawsuits filed today against the NSA for its top secret program of domestic spying without court warrants. My producers and I have been interviewing some of the challengers today, as well as talking to government officials about their contention that the program is a necessary part of the war on terror. How do you balance security versus privacy? Or is that even the right question?
The Vice President said on January 4: "The activities conducted under this authorization have helped to detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks against the American people. As such, this program is critical to the national security of the United States."
But today The New York Times reports exclusively that some FBI officials involved in the program - including FBI Director Robert Mueller - also had questions about its legality, and efficacy. The Times' sources are anonymous, but they question the administration's claim that eavesdropping on some of the specific people targeted by this program helped prevent an attack, such as the blowing up of the Brooklyn Bridge. According to the Times account, counterterror officials had other information independent of the surveillance program that led them to prevent those attacks.
Whatever the legality - and the courts will be the final referee - clearly the administration feels it is on solid political ground. So far, polls show that most Americans questioned prefer to give up privacy for safety. Except it's a good bet most of them think the person being eavesdropped upon is "the other guy," not themselves.
We'll have more on this tonight on Nightly News.
At the same time, at the State Department, my colleague Elizabeth Leist is tracking new efforts by Condi Rice and Homeland Security Chief Chertoff to make it easier for foreign students who deserve to legitimately study in the U.S. to get visas, despite the post-9/11 restrictions. We're also following a number of other, ongoing foreign stories to see which might gel - including negotiations to get Iran to back off its nuclear research program (not working so far!) and the latest from Pakistan, in the wake of that controversial missile attack on suspected al-Qaida targets that killed civilian victims.