The NY Times delivers the latest on the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program - it generated far too many dead-end leads to be useful to the FBI.
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 month.
But virtually all of them, current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans.
"Virtually all" were useless? Uh Huh. And since, to pick an odd example, most New York City cops go through a day without making an arrest, I guess they are virtually useless.
Or, as an even more bizarre analogy, I guess seatbelts in automobiles are virtually useless, as are airbags.
The article does provide some useful perspective:
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 better?"
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.
Hey, maybe this program has merely represented four years of wheel-spinning kept alive only by bureaucratic momentum and a CYA mentality - the NSA was whacked by the 9/11 Commission (Jon Henke has excerpts) and won't be fooled again.
Or maybe the NSA program really has scored some successes which are being kept quiet. Who thinks it would be a great idea if the Administration explained exactly which plots were disrupted, so that Al Qaeda planners can be crystal clear about the circumstances under which their communications were compromised?
And there is an unstated benefit to this program - the NSA effort makes AL Qaeda work harder to communicate, which may make their plotting a bit less fluid, and which (presumably) introduces new opportunities to disrupt them. If, for example, we capture a courier with a flopy disk, can we attribute that to the possibility that Al Qaeda is afraid to use the telephone?
I continue to wish that the Congressional intelligence oversight committees would do their job, IN SECRET, and give the rest of us some bi-partisan assurance that this program is legal and worthwhile. Whether that is a realistic hope given the climate in Washington, and what the sensible alternative to bipartisan adult institutional oversight might be, I don't know.
MORE: Since you ask, no, I don't recognize either Lowell Bergman or Don Van Natta in that byline; Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane have been leading on this story at the Times, with James Risen of course.
Mr. Bergman has had only six bylines in the past year; Mr. Van Natta appears to be the Times man in London, which would cover the British connection in this story.