The press has pointed out repeatedly that the 1978 FISA law allows the government to wiretap on short notice, even to wiretap first and then ask a FISA court for permission retroactively. So, the Bush administration's claim that existing legal requirements slowed things down and "jeopardized national security" is just wrong, and informed people know this.
I suspect what is really going on is that in the wake of 9/11 Bush authorized large scale monitoring of Internet communications, probably by allowing NSA to tap into the backbone. There was a lot of discussion of similar programs, such as Poindexter's Total Information Awareness (TIA) system. Technically, it would not be hard to sample Internet traffic, looking for email or Web activity with certain key words or patterns. However, 100% coverage is probably beyond anyone's capability at the moment.
The problem with this is that you only catch dumb terrorists (maybe that's good enough). As I pointed out before, even widely available communication tools like Skype allow for unbreakable encrypted communication. Don't all terrorists, even ones who don't understand how the Internet works, simply assume that it is being monitored (at least in some weak way)? If so, how can Bush claim that whistleblowers jeopardized national security by leaking information about this illegal program?
BTW, good thing Rockefeller (Senate Intel. Cmmte.) kept a copy of the letter he sent to Cheney. The Bushies claim (lying again) that they got congressional approval, conveniently leaving out that Rockefeller protested immediately about the legality of the program (as did Daschle, who claims the briefings may also have been technically misleading).
Note Added: Administration officials are very careful to state that only "communications" between the US and foreign countries are being monitored. I suppose this means that if your packets don't leave the US, they aren't sniffed. However, all Blackberry users should be aware that their email likely travels through servers in Canada, so is potentially subject to monitoring :-) This Times article seems to confirm that email is intercepted.
TalkLeft: Why do Gonzales and Condi Rice keep mentioning the "technical" aspects of the program as a dodge around FISA?
Why this seemingly inconsequential parsing by Bush of the difference between "monitoring and detection"? Bush says they use FISA if they're monitoring, but this is about "detection."
Why, in his letter, does Rockefeller state that he's "not a technician."?
Why the mention of TIA in Rockefeller's letter?
And why the mention of "large batches of numbers all at once"?
These are not phone numbers we're talking about...These are IP addresses, email addresses.
A system is in place that basically filters on certain triggers (text, phoneme, etc.) within Internet "conversations." This is "detection" or at least its tortured definition that was placed in this idiot Bush's mind. "Monitoring" would be recording an entire conversation, like in a phone conversation.
That system then collects information on those conversations including...ta da...source and destination IP addresses. Those IP addresses can then be stored for further investigation on other "conversations."