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General Michael Hayden, President Bush's nominee for CIA director, has defended his secret programme of snooping on citizens' telephone calls without warrants.

Meanwhile, a judge has given privacy champs the Electronic Frontier Foundation permission to use key evidence at the June hearing, where it will challenge telco AT&T with allegations that it helped US code breaking agency the National Security Agency (NSA) snoop on phone calls and other communications.

During his tenure as NSA director, Hayden had secretly crafted the system by which citizen communications would be tapped without the oversight of a warrant. He said the activity is excusable because agents operated in a system of self regulation. They could be trusted not to abuse their power because they were trustworthy people, the circular argument went.

"Every targeting is documented," Hayden was quoted saying in a Reuters report. "No one has said there has been a targeting decision made that hasn't been well-founded."

The NSA has been embroiled in snooping controversy before, most notably over its control of the international communications snooping network, Echelon, which monitors private and industrial telephone, fax and internet communications from bases in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and most famously, Britain's Menwith Hill.

A 2001 European Parliament investigation was unable to substantiate the many allegations that the NSA was using the network to commit industrial espionage for the benefit of US corporations.

But it said there was no doubt the communications of European firms and citizens were being routinely monitored. It recommended encryption as a means of protection against NSA snooping.

Aggressive surveillance

An intelligence leak in 2003 revealed that the NSA had been using "dirty tricks" and "aggressive surveillance" of United Nations diplomats in an effort to get them to endorse an invasion of Iraq.

Unless these snooping networks were brought under the control of a system of democratic oversight, Privacy International said in its 2002 report 'Privacy and Human Rights', they could be trained on individuals and groups without recourse, and there was "ample evidence" they had already been turned on peace and democracy campaigners.

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies were becoming seamless, it warned: "That may, in practice, negate current rules and regulations prohibiting domestic communications surveillance by national intelligence agencies."

The evidence that the Electronic Frontier Foundation will use to challenge AT&T's alleged part in this international system consists of a testimony and supporting documents provided by a former AT&T worker who allegedly stumbled across a secret monitoring room operated by the NSA at the telco's San Francisco office.

The NSA system defended by Hayden yesterday is alleged to operate in much the same way as the international Echelon network that has worried foreign governments for years, using keywords to scan the millions of emails, phone calls and faxes transmitted across the network every day. They are both also unaccountable. The only difference, according to Hayden, is that the NSA's snooping of US citizens' communications is for the sole purpose of weeding out al Qaeda plots and terrorists.

AT&T and two other US telcos, Bell South and Verizon, this week denied handing phone records over to the NSA.

The ThinkProgress blog reported yesterday that on 5 May President Bush signed a presidential memorandum authorising, by the order of his director of intelligence, companies "to conceal activities related to national security." ®

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