Despite pledges by President George W. Bush and American intelligence officials to the contrary, hundreds of US citizens overseas have been eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home, according to two former military intercept operators who worked at the giant National Security Agency (NSA) center in Fort Gordon, Georgia.
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), called the allegations "extremely disturbing" and said the committee has begun its own examination.
"We have requested all relevant information from the Bush Administration," Rockefeller said Thursday. "The Committee will take whatever action is necessary."
"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, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA's Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.
Kinne described the contents of the calls as "personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism."
She said US military officers, American journalists and American aid workers were routinely intercepted and "collected on" as they called their offices or homes in the United States.
Watch "World News Tonight with Charles Gibson" and "Nightline" for more of Brian Ross' exclusive report.
Another intercept operator, former Navy Arab linguist, David Murfee Faulk, 39, said he and his fellow intercept operators listened into hundreds of Americans picked up using phones in Baghdad's Green Zone from late 2003 to November 2007.
"Calling home to the United States, talking to their spouses, sometimes their girlfriends, sometimes one phone call following another," said Faulk.
The accounts of the two former intercept operators, who have never met and did not know of the other's allegations, provide the first inside look at the day to day operations of the huge and controversial US terrorist surveillance program.
"There is a constant check to make sure that our civil liberties of our citizens are treated with respect," said President Bush at a news conference this past February.
But the accounts of the two whistleblowers, which could not be independently corroborated, raise serious questions about how much respect is accorded those Americans whose conversations are intercepted in the name of fighting terrorism.
Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.
"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News.
Faulk said he joined in to listen, and talk about it during breaks in Back Hall's "smoke pit," but ended up feeling badly about his actions.
"I feel that it was something that the people should not have done. Including me," he said.
In testimony before Congress, then-NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden, now director of the CIA, said private conversations of Americans are not intercepted.
"It's not for the heck of it. We are narrowly focused and drilled on protecting the nation against al Qaeda and those organizations who are affiliated with it," Gen. Hayden testified.
He was asked by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), "Are you just doing this because you just want to pry into people's lives?"
"No, sir," General Hayden replied.
Asked for comment about the ABC News report and accounts of intimate and private phone calls of military officers being passed around, a US intelligence official said "all employees of the US government" should expect that their telephone conversations could be monitored as part of an effort to safeguard security and "information assurance."
"They certainly didn't consent to having interceptions of their telephone sex conversations being passed around like some type of fraternity game," said Jonathon Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University who has testified before Congress on the country's warrantless surveillance program.
"This story is to surveillance law what Abu Ghraib was to prison law," Turley said.
NSA awarded Adrienne Kinne a NSA Joint Service Achievement Medal in 2003 at the same time she says she was listening to hundreds of private conversations between Americans, including many from the International Red Cross and Doctors without Borders.
"We knew they were working for these aid organizations," Kinne told ABC News. "They were identified in our systems as 'belongs to the International Red Cross' and all these other organizations. And yet, instead of blocking these phone numbers we continued to collect on them," she told ABC News.
A spokesman for Doctors Without Borders, Michael Goldfarb, said: "The abuse of humanitarian action through intelligence gathering for military or political objectives, threatens the ability to assist populations and undermines the safety of humanitarian aid workers."
Both Kinne and Faulk said their military commanders rebuffed questions about listening in to the private conversations of Americans talking to Americans.
"It was just always, that , you know, your job is not to question. Your job is to collect and pass on the information," Kinne said.
Some times, Kinne and Faulk said, the intercepts helped identify possible terror planning in Iraq and saved American lives.
"IED's were disarmed before they exploded, that people who were intending to harm US forces were captured ahead of time," Faulk said.
NSA job evaluation forms show he regularly received high marks for job performance. Faulk left his job as a newspaper reporter in Pittsburgh to join the Navy after 9/11.
Kinne says the success stories underscored for her the waste of time spent listening to innocent Americans, instead of looking for the terrorist needle in the haystack.
"By casting the net so wide and continuing to collect on Americans and aid organizations, it's almost like they're making the haystack bigger and it's harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody," she said. "You're actually hurting our ability to effectively protect our national security."
Both former intercept operators came forward at first to speak with investigative journalist Jim Bamford for a book on the NSA, "The Shadow Factory," to be published next week.
"It's extremely rare," said Bamford, who has written two previous books on the NSA, including the landmark "Puzzle Palace" which first revealed the existence of the super secret spy agency.
"Both of them felt that what they were doing was illegal and improper, and immoral, and it shouldn't be done, and that's what forces whistleblowers."
A spokesman for General Hayden, Mark Mansfield, said: "At NSA, the law was followed assiduously. The notion that General Hayden sanctioned or tolerated illegalities of any sort is ridiculous on its face."
The director of the NSA, Lt. General Keith B. Alexander, declined to directly answer any of the allegations made by the whistleblowers.
In a written statement, Gen. Alexander said: "We have been entrusted to protect and defend the nation with integrity, accountability, and respect for the law. As Americans, we take this obligation seriously. Our employees work tirelessly for the good of the nation, and serve this country proudly."