The fallout from the domestic spying program ordered by President Bush continues to mount. Two civil-rights groups planned to file lawsuits Tuesday (January 17) to find out if the warrantless searches carried out by the National Security Agency targeted defense lawyers, journalists, scholars and political activists, according to a New York Times report.
The paper also revealed that much of the mountain of data the NSA passed on to the FBI led to dead ends and that some FBI officials were skeptical about the effectiveness of the project.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights are prepping the first major court challenges to the secret eavesdropping program approved by Bush in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. According to the Times, both groups are seeking an immediate end to the program, which they say is illegal and unconstitutional. The Justice Department is expected to oppose the suits on national security grounds.
The lawsuits seek answers about whether the program was really used only to filter international phone calls and e-mails of people with known links to al Qaeda, as Bush and his advisers have said, or if it has been abused in ways that shadow the political spying abuses of the 1960s and '70s.
"There's almost a feeling of déjà vu with this program," said James Bamford, an author/journalist and one of five individual plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit. Bamford has written two books on the NSA and suspects the program may have been used to monitor his own international communications, according to the Times.
The Center for Constitutional Rights' suit is on behalf of four lawyers and a legal assistant at the center who work on terrorism-related cases at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and overseas, and whose work often involves international e-mail messages and phone calls. The plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit include five Americans who work in international policy and terrorism, along with the ACLU and three other groups.
"We don't have any direct evidence" that the plaintiffs were monitored by the security agency, ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson told the Times. "But the plaintiffs have a well-founded belief that they may have been monitored, and there's a real chilling effect in the fear that they can no longer have confidential discussions with clients or sources without the possibility that the NSA is listening."
Justice Department officials would not comment on any specific individuals who might have been singled out under the NSA program, but spokesperson Brian Roehrkasse said on Monday that "the NSA surveillance activities described by the president were conducted lawfully and provide valuable tools in the war on terrorism to keep America safe and protect civil liberties."
If nothing else, the massive data mining undertaken by the NSA — which Bush called a "vital tool" against terrorism and Vice President Dick Cheney said has saved "thousands" of lives — appears to have been a lot of work for very little payoff.
In a separate story, the Times reports that the NSA sent a "flood" of tips based on phone numbers, e-mail addresses and names to the FBI in the months after the 9/11 attacks, which required hundreds of FBI agents to check out thousands of tips a month, nearly all of them leading to dead ends or innocent Americans, according to former officials.
The FBI repeatedly complained to the NSA that the unfiltered mountain of data was swamping its investigators, and some officials at the agency thought the snooping amounted to pointless intrusions on the privacy of American citizens. The FBI's director, Robert S. Mueller, even raised concerns about the legality of the program but ended up deferring to the Justice Department on the matter.
"We'd chase a number, find it's a schoolteacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism — case closed," one former FBI official told the Times. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration."
The dozen current and former law-enforcement and counterterrorism officials interviewed by the paper said the tips led to few potential terrorists they didn't know of from other sources and might have diverted agents from more productive counterterrorism work.
The officials said the program had uncovered no active Qaeda networks in the United States planning attacks. Some said it might have helped uncover people with ties to al Qaeda in Albany, New York; Portland, Oregon; and Minneapolis, some of whom were tied to recruitment, training and fundraising.
Intelligence officials, though, refute claims that the program was ineffective. "I can say unequivocally that we have gotten information through this program that would not otherwise have been available," the country's second-ranking intelligence official, General Michael V. Hayden, said in a briefing last month.
Experts said part of the issue could be the result of a culture clash between the NSA, an intelligence agency that routinely collects huge amounts of data that sometimes yields only bits of useful information, and the FBI, which is more traditionally focused on solving crimes. But several officials interviewed by the Times admitted they might not know of arrests or intelligence activities overseas that grew out of the NSA program. Because of the secrecy of the NSA's work, ties to specific cases are hard to make.