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Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led F.B.I. to Dead Ends

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://nytimes.com/2006/01/17/politics/17spy.html?ei=5094&en=95535dcb34270fd6&hp=&ex=1137474000&partner=homepage&pagewanted=print January 17, 2006 Spy Agency
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 16, 2006

      January 17, 2006
      Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led F.B.I. to Dead Ends
      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
      Americans' privacy.

      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
      Qaeda figures.

      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
      the program.

      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
      follow up.

      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
      'suspected' mean?"

      "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
      federal prison.

      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
      significant role.

      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.
      undercover informant.

      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.
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