Testifying before a Senate committee last April, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then head of the National Security Agency, emphasized how scrupulously the agency was protecting Americans from its electronic snooping. "We are, I would offer, the most aggressive agency in the intelligence community when it comes to protecting U.S. privacy," General Hayden said. "We just have to be that way."
It was one of General Hayden's favorite themes in public speeches and interviews: the agency's mammoth eavesdropping network was directed at foreigners, not Americans. As a PowerPoint presentation posted on the agency's Web site puts it, for an American to be a target, "Court Order Required in the United States."
In fact, since 2002, authorized by a secret order from President Bush, the agency has intercepted the international phone calls and e-mail messages of hundreds, possibly thousands, of American citizens and others in the United States without obtaining court orders. The discrepancy between the public claims and the secret domestic eavesdropping disclosed last week have put the N.S.A., the nation's largest intelligence agency, and General Hayden, now principal deputy director of national intelligence, in an awkward position.