The revelation that President Bush authorized taps on phone calls and emails inside the United States was itself shocking to many people. But more than seven years after Bush gave the green light for the practice -- and nearly three years since the New York Times revealed the program's existence -- it is still unclear how broadly the warrantless wiretapping was used.
"The powers that Bush took are so broad and there has been no oversight mechanism so it's really unclear whether they actually used the powers inappropriately," said Caroline Fredrickson, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Bush administration has said that it has done nothing illegal, arguing that the constitution gives the president this power for the sake of national security. What's more, the administration argues that Congress essentially gave the president this power by authorizing him to use all necessary force against al Qaeda shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But it has since rescinded the program and gone to Congress to get authorization for a more restricted wiretapping program that Bush administration officials say does not involve listening in to Americans' calls without a warrant.
Legal challenges have faced problems too. Many plaintiffs have filed suit alleging that the government should disclose if they were wiretapped. But few have any proof that they were targeted. The ACLU led the biggest challenge to the NSA wiretapping program, which was declared unconstitutional by a district court judge. But an appeals court overturned that decision.
There is one case that may bear fruit for opponents of the NSA program: the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now-defunct Islamic charity which the Treasury Department designated as a terrorist front and tried to freeze its assets. Attorneys for the charity claim that documents turned over to them (apparently mistakrenly) during a legal challenge to the group's desination as a terrorist front were from an nsa wiretap of the organization and two of its attorneys. In July, a federal judge held that getting this information with out a warrant was against the law, a ruling now on appeal.
The firing of at least eight U.S. Attorneys in 2006 for apparently political reasons led to the departure of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and placed a dark cloud over the integrity of Justice Department that officials are still working to dispel. Despite the damage, the White House has blocked efforts by Congress and the courts to obtain documents and testimony that might help the country understand what had happened.
The central unanswered question is this: what role, if any, White House officials played in the development and approval of the firings and the inappropriate political hires at the Department of Justice and whether they played any role in overturning case decisions in the civil rights division that career attorneys opposed. E-mails released to Congress indicate that White House officials played a role in these discussions but top officials -- including White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and former advisor Karl Rove -- have refused to testify or turn over documents.