That year, following the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush authorized the NSA to monitor the international phone calls and international e-mails of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States, the Times reported.
Before the new program began, the NSA typically limited its domestic surveillance to foreign embassies and missions and obtained court orders for such investigations. Overseas, 5,000 to 7,000 people suspected of terrorist ties are monitored at one time.
The Times said reporters interviewed nearly a dozen current and former administration officials about the program and granted them anonymity because of the classified nature of the program.
The NSA coordinates, directs, and performs highly specialized activities to protect U.S. government information systems and produce foreign intelligence information.
Government officials credited the new program with uncovering several terrorist plots, including one by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker who pleaded guilty in 2003 to supporting al Qaeda by planning to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, the report said.
But some NSA officials were so concerned about the legality of the program that they refused to participate, the Times said. Questions about the legality of the program led the administration to temporarily suspend it last year and impose new restrictions.
"We're finding out that the president has possibly authorized the breaking of the law so that our government can eavesdrop on American citizens?" Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, told CBS Radio News. "We're still trying to process it, but it's truly amazing."
"This is sort of a centerpiece of our Constitution that we have the Fourth Amendment to prevent unreasonable search and seizures. The government is supposed to go through a process when it wants to use surveillance, particularly on an American citizen," Fredrickson added.
Asked about the administration's contention that the eavesdropping has disrupted terrorist attacks, Fredrickson said the ACLU couldn't comment until it sees some evidence. "They've veiled these powers in secrecy so there's no way for Congress or any independent organizations to exercise any oversight."