Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led F.B.I. to Dead Ends
January 17, 2006
Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led F.B.I. to Dead Ends
By LOWELL BERGMAN, ERIC LICHTBLAU, SCOTT SHANE and DON
VAN NATTA Jr.
This article is by Lowell Bergman, Eric Lichtblau,
Scott Shane and Don Van Natta Jr.
WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 - 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
But virtually all of them, 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 foreign-related 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
As the bureau was running down those leads, its
director, Robert S. Mueller III, raised concerns about
the legal rationale for the eavesdropping program,
which did not seek court warrants, one government
official said. Mr. Mueller asked senior administration
officials about "whether the program had a proper
legal foundation," but deferred to Justice Department
legal opinions, the official said.
President Bush has characterized the eavesdropping
program, which focused on the international
communications of some Americans and others in the
United States, as a "vital tool" against terrorism;
Vice President Dick Cheney has said it has saved
"thousands of lives."
But the results of the program look very different to
some officials charged with tracking terrorism in the
United States. More than a dozen current and former
law enforcement and counterterrorism officials,
including some in the small circle who knew of the
secret eavesdropping program and how it played out at
the F.B.I., said 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," 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 director
of national intelligence's office. 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
eavesdropping program was started.
"I can say unequivocally that we have gotten
information through this program that would not
otherwise have been available," 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.
"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
Several of the law enforcement officials acknowledged
that they might not know of arrests or intelligence
activities overseas that grew out of the domestic
spying program. And because the program was a closely
guarded secret, its role in specific cases may have
been disguised or hidden even from key investigators.
Still, the comments on the N.S.A. program from the law
enforcement and counterterrorism officials, many of
them high level, are the first indication that the
program was viewed with skepticism by key figures at
the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the agency
responsible for disrupting plots and investigating
terrorism on American soil.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity
because the program is classified. It is coming under
scrutiny next month in hearings on Capitol Hill, which
were planned after members of Congress raised
questions about the legality of the warrantless
eavesdropping. The program was disclosed in December
by The New York Times.
The law enforcement and counterterrorism officials
said the program had uncovered no active Qaeda
networks inside the United States planning attacks.
"There were no imminent plots - not inside the United
States," the former F.B.I. official said.
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
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 prisoner
interrogations or other means.
Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush
administration pressed the nation's intelligence
agencies and the F.B.I. to move urgently to thwart any
more plots. The N.S.A., whose mission is to spy
overseas, began monitoring the international e-mail
messages and phone calls of people inside the United
States who were linked, even indirectly, to suspected
Under a presidential order, the agency conducted the
domestic eavesdropping without seeking the warrants
ordinarily required from the secret Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court, which handles
national security matters. The administration has
defended the legality of the program, pointing to what
it says is the president's inherent constitutional
power to defend the country and to legislation passed
by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Administration officials told Mr. Mueller, the F.B.I.
director, of the eavesdropping program, and his agency
was enlisted to run down leads from it, several
current and former officials said.
While he and some bureau officials discussed the fact
that the program bypassed the intelligence
surveillance court, Mr. Mueller expressed no concerns
about that to them, those officials said. But another
government official said Mr. Mueller had questioned
administration officials about the legal authority for
Officials who were briefed on the N.S.A. program said
the agency collected much of the data passed on to the
F.B.I. as tips by tracing phone numbers in the United
States called by suspects overseas, and then by
following the domestic numbers to other numbers
called. In other cases, lists of phone numbers
appeared to result from the agency's computerized
scanning of communications coming into and going out
of the country for names and keywords that might be of
interest. The deliberate blurring of the source of the
tips caused some frustration among those who had to
F.B.I. field agents, who were not told of the domestic
surveillance programs, complained that they often were
given no information about why names or numbers had
come under suspicion. A former senior prosecutor who
was familiar with the eavesdropping programs said
intelligence officials turning over the tips "would
always say that we had information whose source we
can't share, but it indicates that this person has
been communicating with a suspected Al Qaeda
operative." He said, "I would always wonder, what does
"The information was so thin," he said, "and the
connections were so remote, that they never led to
anything, and I never heard any follow-up."
In response to the F.B.I. complaints, the N.S.A.
eventually began ranking its tips on a three-point
scale, with 3 being the highest priority and 1 the
lowest, the officials said. Some tips were considered
so hot that they were carried by hand to top F.B.I.
officials. But in bureau field offices, the N.S.A.
material continued to be viewed as unproductive,
prompting agents to joke that a new bunch of tips
meant more "calls to Pizza Hut," one official, who
supervised field agents, said.
The views of some bureau officials about the value of
the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance offers a revealing
glimpse of the difficulties law enforcement and
intelligence agencies have had cooperating since Sept.
The N.S.A., criticized by the national Sept. 11
commission for its "avoidance of anything domestic"
before the attacks, moved aggressively into the
domestic realm after them. But the legal debate over
its warrantless eavesdropping has embroiled the agency
in just the kind of controversy its secretive managers
abhor. The F.B.I., meanwhile, has struggled over the
last four years to expand its traditional mission of
criminal investigation to meet the larger menace of
Some F.B.I. officials said they were uncomfortable
with the expanded domestic role played by the N.S.A.
and other intelligence agencies, saying most
intelligence officers lacked the training needed to
safeguard Americans' privacy and civil rights. They
said some protections had to be waived temporarily in
the months after Sept. 11 to detect a feared second
wave of attacks, but they questioned whether emergency
procedures like the eavesdropping should become
That discomfort may explain why some F.B.I. officials
may seek to minimize the benefits of the N.S.A.
program or distance themselves from the agency. "This
wasn't our program," an F.B.I. official said. "It's
not our mess, and we're not going to clean it up."
The N.S.A.'s legal authority for collecting the
information it passed to the F.B.I. is uncertain. The
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires a
warrant for the use of so-called pen register
equipment that records American phone numbers, even if
the contents of the calls are not intercepted. But
officials with knowledge of the program said no
warrants were sought to collect the numbers, and it is
unclear whether the secret executive order signed by
Mr. President Bush in 2002 to authorize eavesdropping
without warrants also covered the collection of phone
numbers and e-mail addresses.
Aside from the director, F.B.I. officials did not
question the legal status of the tips, assuming that
N.S.A. lawyers had approved. They were more concerned
about the quality and quantity of the material, which
produced "mountains of paperwork" that was often more
like raw data than conventional investigative leads.
"It affected the F.B.I. in the sense that they had to
devote so many resources to tracking every single one
of these leads, and, in my experience, they were all
dry leads," the former senior prosecutor said. "A
trained investigator never would have devoted the
resources to take those leads to the next level, but
after 9/11, you had to."
By the administration's account, the N.S.A.
eavesdropping helped lead investigators to Iyman
Faris, an Ohio truck driver and friend of Khalid
Shaikh Mohammed, who is believed to be the mastermind
of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Faris spoke of toppling
the Brooklyn Bridge by taking a torch to its
suspension cables, but concluded that it would not
work. He is now serving a 20-year sentence in a
But as in the London fertilizer bomb case, some
officials with direct knowledge of the Faris case
dispute that the N.S.A. information played a
By contrast, different officials agree that the
N.S.A.'s domestic operations played a role in the
arrest in Albany of an imam and another man who were
taken into custody in August 2004 as part of an F.B.I.
counterterrorism sting investigation.
The men, Yassin Aref, 35, and Mohammed Hossain, 49,
are awaiting trial on charges that they attempted to
engineer the sale of missile launchers to an F.B.I.
In addition, government officials said the N.S.A.
eavesdropping program might have assisted in the
investigations of people with suspected Qaeda ties in
Portland and Minneapolis. In the Minneapolis case,
charges of supporting terrorism were filed in 2004
against Mohammed Abdullah Warsame, a Canadian citizen.
Six people in the Portland case were convicted of
crimes that included money laundering and conspiracy
to wage war against the United States.
Even senior administration officials with access to
classified operations suggest that drawing a clear
link between a particular source and the unmasking of
a potential terrorist is not always possible.
When Michael Chertoff, the homeland security
secretary, was asked last week on "The Charlie Rose
Show" whether the N.S.A. wiretapping program was
important in deterring terrorism, he said, "I don't
know that it's ever possible to attribute one strand
of intelligence from a particular program."
But Mr. Chertoff added, "I can tell you in general,
the process of doing whatever you can do
technologically to find out what is being said by a
known terrorist to other people, and who that person
is communicating with, that is without a doubt one of
the critical tools we've used time and again."
William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting for this article.