Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 17, 2006

NSA revelations: the Bureau strikes back

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Investigation & Enforcement — by Christian Beckner on January 17, 2006

The hits keep on coming from The New York Times on the intelligence and homeland security beat. The latest story today provides the FBI’s perspective on December’s revelations about the NSA: namely, that it was not an effective program in terms of law enforcement outcomes –

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 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.”

The article notes how NSA was forced to disguise the source of its leads to such an extent that it hindered the FBI’s ability to discern how it should respond to leads. This is another data point in support of the key argument in my initial response to the NSA story: that fighting the war on terror by taking ‘short cuts’ or operating in a legal grey zone is ultimately the less effective strategy for combating the threats that we face. There’s something inherently wrong with a system where you can’t even trust the nation’s lead law enforcement agency with any context on collected intelligence.

There’s a wealth of additional detail in the piece that advances the NSA story; it’s definitely worth a read.

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Comment by Brian

January 17, 2006 @ 9:29 am

I noticed that in both of your commentaries you do not consider the outcome or punishment that should be taken against those the leaked the information to New York Times. If the government listens in on three telephone conversations from Al Qaeda to a US citizens in the USA you find fault, but what about the intelligence officials that provides information to a reporter?

Which is more wrong? Listening to an enemy combatant talking to a traitorous citizen or intelligence officials that failed to go through a proscribed system to let his or her higher know of some “illegal” activity.

There are grey areas in life as in war. Thinking that you can live in a black and white world is a bit naive and dangerous.


Comment by Christian Beckner

January 17, 2006 @ 1:03 pm


I have never said that I found fault with the underlying activities by the NSA, whatever they might have been. What I find fault with is the fact that these activities took place outside the scope of any sort of system of legal checks and balances. The point that I’ve made repeatedly is that this sort of extra-legal behavior, while perhaps tempting to officials, is counterproductive in the long run because when uncovered, it undermines public support for legally vetted security activities, such as those authorized under the Patriot Act (which I’ve never had a problem with, except for the grant distribution formula provision).


Comment by Charles

January 18, 2006 @ 12:56 pm

I agree with Brian. Extra-legal behavior only undermines public support for legally vetted security activities when it becomes public knowledge. We must curtail the rampaging press before their loose lips sink the ship of state.

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