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The New York Times updates its NSA exposé today in yet another self-contradictory follow-up that points out yet again the bias of the reporters at the heart of the story, and perhaps the bias of their sources as well. The Risen/Lichtblau story gets thinner and thinner even as the editors of the Gray Lady do their best to dress it up. In an installment titled "Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led F.B.I. to Dead Ends", Lichtblau & Co. do their best to minimize the benefits of the program:
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, 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.
That's the lead of the story, and the article meanders along like that for over fifteen paragraphs, until the reader gets to this passage:
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 fund-raising.
So recruitment, training, and funding terrorists on American soil suddenly doesn't equate to "active al-Qaeda networks"? Since when? The FBI should tell us if it considers those functions as beneath its dignity to stop within the United States, because most Americans would beg to differ. And if one really digs into the article, Lichtblau supplies the specifics of the cases:
By contrast, different officials agree that the N.S.A.'s domestic operations played a role in the arrest of an imam and another man in Albany 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.
Not only did the NSA discover these conspiracies, but their evidence apparently led to convictions in the one case that has gone to trial.
No one expects every call, or even most calls, to have anything of value. Signal intel takes patience and time; sometimes messages only acquire meaning when combined with a pattern of other traffic, and it takes a long while to build that kind of intel base for evaluation. For those who want to know about such matters, the Ultra program at Bletchley Park in WWII makes a great example. Breaking the Enigma code was the most spectacular accomplishment, but people forget that the Ultra team also developed a massive card system that allowed the codebreakers to garner an encyclopedic knowledge of German personnel and facilities, allowing the Allies to anticipate strategies and tactics based on the most benign of communications.
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.
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