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.
Officials describe a flood of email addresses, telephone calls, and names which were sent to the FBI by the NSA. Thousands of such pieces of information were sent a month. Multiply that by the dozens of months the program has been in existence, and the far-reaching scope of Bush's domestic spying becomes frighteningly clear.
While Bush has been telling Americans that the program was "limited" and targeted those with "known" links to Al Qaeda, that simply is not true. The NSA accessed "large amounts of phone and Internet traffic seeking patterns pointing to terrorism suspects." It would then take volumes of information and shovel it over to the FBI, who wasn't told why the person was targeted or how they were connected to terrorism, just that they were suspected of having those ties. It was the FBI then that was sent out blind to the field, following up on thousands of names of American citizens, interviewing them and examining their private lives.
Did such a wide net yield results?
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 looked 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 school teacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism - case closed," said one former FBI 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."
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.
The administration keeps pointing to the arrest of Iyman Faris, the Ohio truck driver who set out to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge, as a successful result of the program. But the administration's claim is dubious. If the government really had wiretapped Faris' phone and discovered he was a terrorist and planning to attack us, then why didn't the government present any of that phone evidence at trial? Could it be because they were afraid it would be inadmissible, or they would have to disclose how they received it?
Here is another disturbing revelation from the article:
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.
Do those "other numbers called" include domestic phone calls? If so, that means that the calls were purely domestic. Were those calls intercepted pursuant to Bush's order or pursuant to the law? This is a critical question that needs to be answered.