Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Dead Ends

NYT reports In the anxious months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Agency began sending a steady stream of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names to the F.B.I. in search of terrorists. The stream soon became a flood, requiring hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips a month. But virtually all of them,

The key word is virtually. Any policeman can tell you that not all leads are productive, but they must all be checked out, to see which ones will reveal the bad guys.
current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans. F.B.I. officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. The spy agency was collecting much of the data by eavesdropping on some Americans' international communications and conducting computer searches of phone and Internet traffic. Some F.B.I. officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans' privacy
They were not checkout out every number involved in international calls, just those from known or suspected terrorists.
.... the torrent of tips led them to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources and diverted agents from counterterrorism work they viewed as more productive. "We'd chase a number, find it's a schoolteacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism - case closed,
Maybe you closed the case too soon. Remembers Sami Al-Arian. He taught at the University of South Florida
" said one former F.B.I. official, who was aware of the program and the data it generated for the bureau. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration." Intelligence officials disagree with any characterization of the program's results as modest, said Judith A. Emmel, a spokeswoman for the office of the director of national intelligence. Ms. Emmel cited a statement at a briefing last month by Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the country's second-ranking intelligence official and the director of the N.S.A. when the program was started. "I can say unequivocally that we have gotten information through this program that would not otherwise have been available,"
Considering failure to connect the dots on 9/11 meant two buildings and nearly 3,000 people were lost, I am happy to se they were getting some results.
General Hayden said. The White House and the F.B.I. declined to comment on the program or its results. The differing views of the value of the N.S.A.'s foray into intelligence-gathering in the United States may reflect both bureaucratic rivalry and a culture clash. The N.S.A., an intelligence agency, routinely collects huge amounts of data from across the globe that may yield only tiny nuggets of useful information; the F.B.I., while charged with fighting terrorism, retains the traditions of a law enforcement agency more focused on solving crimes.
Fighting terrorism like you fight crime is not the way to go. That is what Clinton tried, and while he may have gotten come convictions on the 93 attack on the buildings, the same group flew planes into them in 2001.
"It isn't at all surprising to me that people not accustomed to doing this would say, 'Boy, this is an awful lot of work to get a tiny bit of information,' " said Adm. Bobby R. Inman, a former N.S.A. director. "But the rejoinder to that is, Have you got anything better?"
And the answer is no.
.... Some of the officials said the eavesdropping program might have helped uncover people with ties to Al Qaeda in Albany; Portland, Ore.; and Minneapolis. Some of the activities involved recruitment, training or fund-raising.
All three are very good to discover. Did they think they were going to catch people boarding airplanes, and be able to prove they were going to fly them into buildings?
But, along with several British counterterrorism officials, some of the officials questioned assertions by the Bush administration that the program was the key to uncovering a plot to detonate fertilizer bombs in London in 2004. The F.B.I. and other law enforcement officials also expressed doubts about the importance of the program's role in another case named by administration officials as a success in the fight against terrorism, an aborted scheme to topple the Brooklyn Bridge with a blow torch. Some officials said that in both cases, they had already learned of the plans through interrogation of prisoners or other means.
But thanks to Senator McCain, it is going to be harder to get results through interrogation.
CQ blogged The FBI, however, apparently doesn't like the fact that this program is run outside of its control. Even the Times alludes throughout the article that the FBI actively seeks to minimize the benefits of the NSA program because they can't control it themselves. It's a continuation of the same cross-agency feuding that has always existed in the American intelligence community. The 9/11 Commission said that slapping an extra two layers of bureaucracy to the top would eliminate it, but as most of us pointed out, all it did was make intel that much harder to rise to the top.

The Volokh Conspiracy blogged This is an interesting story, although I'm not quite sure what to make of it. If the spying program led to the discovery of "a few terrorists," is the real story that the program only led to a few terrorists, or is it that the program successfully led to the discovery of terrorist cells inside the United States? The Times opts for the former, but it's not immediately obvious to me why they don't opt for the latter. Second, I'm a little bit skeptical of the sourcing for this article. Turf battles can create inter-agency friction, and a New York Times piece based on anonymous sources can provide excellent cover for fighting the battle over turf. I would want to know what kind of turf battles are going on within the government between the NSA and FBI before knowing how much to trust the views of anonymous FBI insiders about the work of the NSA. The story is helpful, and may be quite accurate, but I'm a bit cautious about this one.

GOP Bloggers blogged This is just part of the MSM campaign to impugn the manifestly successful (for whatever reason, unless you think Al Qaeda just took their ball and went home) efforts to prevent further attacks. When there is another attack, these same people will attack the government for its failure to prevent it. This amnesia exists on West 42nd Street, but polls indicate that most Americans don't share the Times's affliction.

The Moderate Voice blogged Which is the best approach? If nothing (that we in the public know of, of course) comes of this approach then some will argue it's a waste of time. If a tidbit comes that saves a large number of lives, it would be justified. But no matter what it doesn't sound as if the FBI is equipped to run down all of these infobits — and that this approach could prove to be a distraction. Of course, no one will know that is a fact unless something happens that in retrospect would have required a better allocation of FBI resources than checking out a schoolteacher who showed up in the big intelligence fishnet.

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