U.S. intelligence analysts eavesdropped on personal calls between Americans overseas and their families back home and monitored the communications of workers with the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations, according to U.S. military linguists involved in U.S. surveillance programs.
The accounts are the most detailed to date to challenge the assertions of President Bush, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and other administration officials that the United States' controversial overseas wiretapping activities have been carefully monitored to prevent abuse and invasion of U.S. citizens' privacy.
Describing the allegations as "extremely disturbing," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the panel had launched an inquiry and requested records from the Bush administration.
The linguists said that recordings of intimate conversations between U.S. citizens and their loved ones were sometimes passed around, out of prurient interest, among analysts at an electronic surveillance facility at Fort Gordon, Ga.
They also said they were encouraged to continue monitoring calls of aid workers and other personnel stationed in the Middle East even when it was clear the callers had no ties to terrorists or posed any threat to U.S. interests.
"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," said Adrienne Kinne, 31, a former Arab linguist in the Army Reserves who worked at a National Security Agency facility at Fort Gordon from 2001 to 2003.
"We identified phone numbers belonging to non-threatening groups, including the Red Cross," she said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "We could have blocked their numbers, but we didn't, and we were told to listen to them just in case."
Kinne's accounts were echoed by a former Navy linguist, David Murfee Faulk, 39, who worked at the same facility from 2003 to 2007 and said in an interview that the government routinely monitored conversations between U.S. troops in Iraq and their spouses or loved ones.
"I observed people writing down, word for word, very embarrassing conversations," Faulk said. "People would say, 'Hey, check this out; you're not going to believe what I heard.' "
Their claims were initially reported yesterday by ABC News.
The United States' overseas wiretapping activities have been a source of controversy since it was disclosed in December 2005 that Bush had secretly authorized the NSA to override existing laws and begin monitoring the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. residents. Critics, including some members of Congress, have described the eavesdropping as a violation of laws passed in the 1970s that required court warrants before communications of U.S. residents could be monitored.
Bush and Hayden, who headed the NSA from 1999 to 2005, have repeatedly defended the legality of the program, characterizing it as a carefully targeted operation.
"We're going after very specific communications that our professional judgment tells us we have reason to believe are those associated with people who want to kill Americans," Hayden said in a speech defending the program in 2006.
It is not clear whether the abuses alleged by Kinne and Faulk occurred as part of the sweeping so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program authorized by Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks or were tied to more narrow military intelligence operations focused on protecting U.S. forces.
An NSA spokesman said the agency "takes its legal responsibility seriously" and operates "in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations and with the highest standards of integrity and lawful action."
"Some of these allegations have been investigated and found to be unsubstantiated," the NSA spokesman said. "Others are in the investigation process."
Congress overhauled the foreign intelligence surveillance laws earlier this year to give the government greater latitude to track targets overseas. But the law still imposes strict protections for U.S. citizens abroad and requires the government to delete or block out information that isn't for valid intelligence purposes.
"At NSA, the law was followed assiduously," said Mark Mansfield, a spokesman for Hayden, who became CIA director in 2006. "The notion that Gen. Hayden sanctioned or tolerated illegalities of any sort is ridiculous on its face."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.