And yet on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stuck to the same discredited talking points, calling the program an “important tool” and falsely claiming that “at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information, so lives have been saved.”
Unfortunately, Carney’s stubbornness is no aberration, but part of a pattern we’ve seen all too often over the past decade. Just like the NSA, we now have more than enough data to “connect the dots.”
President Bush authorized the NSA to conduct wireless phone wiretaps shortly after September 11 attacks. When The New York Times revealed the program, administration officials insisted it was effective and vitally important. Former NSA Director Michael Hayden claimed that it had “been successful in detecting and preventing attacks inside the United States,” while Vice President Cheney went further, asserting that the program had “saved thousands of lives.”
When the intelligence community’s inspectors general finally published an unclassified report on the program, however, it noted that officials “had difficulty citing specific instances where [the program] had directly contributed to counterterrorism successes.” A senior CIA official told NSA historian Matthew Aid: “We spent a ton on the program but got back very little in the way of solid returns. I don’t think it was worth the money.”
Intelligence officials have hailed “fusion centers”—information-sharing hubs massively funded by the Department of Homeland Security over the past decade—as a “vital, proven tool” and a “centerpiece of our counterterrorism strategy.” Just last year an extensive, bipartisan Senate investigation concluded the centers had produced no useful counterterror intelligence but had risked violating the Privacy Act by generating reports of citizens’ First Amendment protected activities. Various “success stories” invoked to show the usefulness of the centers, the Senate investigation found, did not stand up to scrutiny.
In other cases, rather than claiming bogus success stories, the officials have sought to expand their powers by blaming inadequate surveillance authorities for intelligence failures.
Consider, for example, the “lone wolf” authority approved soon after 9/11, which allows powerful foreign intelligence surveillance tools to be used against terror suspects without any demonstrable link to a foreign group. The need for this never-used power was supposedly illustrated by the case of “20th Hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui, whose laptop the FBI supposedly failed to search in time to discover the planned attack on the World Trade Center because agents could not show an adequate tie to foreign terrorists.
Yet a very different picture emerged in a scathing 2003 Senate Judiciary Committee report. After the attacks, the report noted, investigators were able to obtain a conventional warrant using the same evidence that had previously been considered inadequate. A warrant hadn’t been obtained earlier because supervisors at FBI Headquarters had failed to link related reports from different field offices, or to pass those reports on to the lawyers tasked with determining when a FISA warrant should be sought, and misunderstood the scope of their own existing legal authorities. "In performing this fairly straightforward task," the report concludes, "FBI headquarters personnel failed miserably."