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What Today's New York Times NSA Story Reveals about Intelligence Collection and F.B.I. Reform

11:39 AM, Jan 17, 2006 • By DANIEL MCKIVERGAN
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After exposing yet another top-secret program, the New York Times is now doing its best to portray the program as not having much intelligence value. Today's front-page story, "Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led F.B.I. to Dead Ends," is the first of what will undoubtedly be a steady stream of other pieces where anonymous FBI sources leak against the NSA. But, if accurate, why is it surprising that much of the NSA data led to "dead ends" exactly? We still don't know everyone the 9/11 terrorists associated with and immediately following the attacks officials were worried that al Qaeda had inserted other "sleeper cells" inside the U.S. to carryout more attacks. The follow-on attacks never came but does that mean al Qaeda has no presence inside the U.S.? After our intelligence agencies failed to detect the 9/11 plot, we shouldn't presume that such cells might exist and use a variety of methods to detect them before they become operational? Do Democrats disagree? Do Democratic leaders agree with those saying that the president has no constitutional authority to authorize "wiretapping" outside of FISA?

Adm. Bobby Inman, a former NSA director, makes a similar point on intelligence collection in the Times piece:

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 Inman]. But the rejoinder to that is, Have you got anything better?

And:

Admiral Inman...said the F.B.I. complaints about thousands of dead-end leads revealed a chasm between very different disciplines. Signals intelligence, the technical term for N.S.A.'s communications intercepts, rarely produces "the complete information you're going to get from a document or a witness" in a traditional F.B.I. investigation, he said.

Even so, while the Times claims "officials said the program had uncovered no active Qaeda networks inside the United States planning attacks," they also report that,

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....

[O]fficials 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.

It's also worrisome that, according to the Times, the F.B.I. "has struggled over the last four years to expand its traditional mission of criminal investigation to meet the larger menace of terrorism." The Times further noted:

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.

The 9/11 Commission considered reform at the F.B.I. a top priority in the reorganization of America's intelligence community. Unfortunately, change at the F.B.I. hasn't been easy. Consider what this April 2004 Congressional Research Service report said on past reform efforts:

The FBI's current intelligence reform is not its first. Twice before -- in 1998, and then again in 1999 -- the FBI embarked on almost identical efforts to establish intelligence as a priority, and to strengthen its intelligence program. Both attempts are considered by some to have been failures.