"Dead ends or innocent Americans"

As FBI officials describe the futility of Bush's warrantless spying program, two lawsuits challenge its legality.

Published January 17, 2006 1:58PM (EST)

It all sounds so reasonable when the president explains it. At a "campaign style" event last week in which he tried to shore up support for his war on terror, George W. Bush defended his program of spying on American citizens by saying, "It seems like to me that if somebody is talking to al-Qaida, we want to know why."

Well, OK. If the Bush administration has evidence that somebody inside the United States is making phone calls to a member of al-Qaida overseas, we'd probably want to know why, too. But the president omits two inconvenient facts when he characterizes his spying program in such a simple way.

First, if the Bush administration has evidence that somebody in the United States is talking with a member of al-Qaida, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1972 would allow it to monitor such conversations; all it has to do is ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a warrant.

Second, as the New York Times reports today, the government has been monitoring a whole lot of calls and e-mails involving people who weren't, in fact, "talking to al-Qaida." In the months after 9/11, the Times says, the National Security Agency flooded the FBI with phone numbers, e-mail addresses and names generated by Bush's secret spying program, but "virtually all of them, current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans."

"We'd chase a number, find it's a schoolteacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism -- case closed," a former FBI official tells the Times. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration." Other officials say the "torrent of tips" from the NSA "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."

At a briefing last month, the former head of the NSA defended the spying program by saying that it provided the government information that "would not otherwise have been available." That's precisely the problem, isn't it? The NSA could have monitored the calls of people "talking to al-Qaida" without any secret executive orders from the president. What it probably couldn't have done is monitor the calls of American citizens who had nothing to do with suspected terrorists or their plots.

We still don't know who was having their calls monitored, and we may never know. But in two lawsuits to be filed today, nearly a dozen scholars, journalists and others who fear that they were subjected to monitoring ask for an immediate end to the spying program. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights will file the lawsuits today in Detroit and New York. Among the plaintiffs: Christopher Hitchens, the journalist and Iraq war hawk, and Larry Diamond, a scholar at the conservative Hoover Institution, who worries that his communications with a graduate student researcher in Egypt have been monitored by the NSA.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Espionage War Room