Goodies In The New Report On NSA Surveillance

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Inspectors general from across the Justice and intelligence communities have released a major, revealing report about the controversial National Security Agency domestic collection program that the New York Times disclosed in 2005.  The unclassified version of the report, which you can read here, contains intruging hints about the program's origins, the internal debates about its use, and the scope of its activities. We know that the "TSP" was simply one part of the "President's Surveillance Program," as the IGs, somewhat neutrally, label it.  The CIA and FBI were privy to the raw intercepts.   Some highlights, from a quick glance:


** Many senior intelligence officials said they weren't sure whether the program contributed to successful terrorism prosecutions, although the IGs found some (classified) evidence that, in certain cases, it did. (pp. 34).

** The NSA's general counsel's office regular reviewed the "target folders" -- i.e., the identities of those under surveillance -- to make sure the program complied with the instruction to surveill those reasonably assumed to have connections to Al Qaeda. They did this by sampling a number of the folders at random. What does that tell us? Quite simply... that the number of persons who were targets inside the United States was pretty darn big... if the NSA's management couldn't individually determine whether each target met the legal criteria.  (pp. 19, and my interpretation.)

** The DOJ's inspector general found AG Gonzales's congressional testimony about the TSP "incomplete and confusing" and "inaccurate," though not intentionally misleading.  (pp. 36)

** An internal Justice Department investigation urges the Attorney General to "carefully consider whether to re-examine past cases" where PSP information was used to bring about the arrest or conviction of a terrorist. (pp. 17).  This recommendation could have ramifications for current prosecutions.

** In a White House meeting after deputy A.G. James Comey had voiced concerns about the legality of some aspects of the PSP, Vice President Cheney suggested that the President reauthorize the program without the consent of the Department of Justice. This outraged FBI director Robert Mueller, who told Cheney that he couldn't agree to that.  (pp. 22-23).  The report details how President Bush re certified the program anyway, leading to resignation threats from senior Justice Department officials. (pp. 27).  Comey met with Bush in a private meeting shortly thereafter, and Bush told Comey that he had not been aware of the substance of some of Comey's objections.   

** The NSA claims to have briefed the "Gang of 8" on the program very shortly after its inception in 2001, and said it conducted 16 congressional briefings before the program was disclosed in the New York Times in 2005. The NSA insists that no member of Congress objected to the program. 

** The NSA and FBI generally assess the program to have been "useful," one of "many tools" used to instigate and conduct terrorism investigations. The compartmentalized nature of the program was detrimental to the program's ultimate success. (pp 32.)  The CIA'

** Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged that the regular Attorney General review of the program was undertaken for "purely political" purposes; the NSA was jittery about something so novel, and higher-level sign off helped sooth nerves. (pp. 11)

** No one seems to know why John Yoo was, for two years, the ONLY Justice Department official (aside from the AG and a deputy) who was "read in" to the program. Yoo's boss, Jay Bybee, told the IGs he had no idea why Yoo was given access to the program and no idea why Yoo was the one to write the justifying legal opinions. (pp. 15-18).  Indeed, it's not clear to the IGs that Attorney General Ashcroft knew that Yoo was acting as the department's legal voice on the PSP.


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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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