Wiretaps Work

An independent federal investigation into President Bush’s warrantless intercepts of al Qaeda communications found that intelligence agencies followed the program’s procedures, did not spy on innocent Americans and gleaned valuable information on the terror network.

Contrary to claims by the political left that Bush wanted to listen in on private citizens, the report by five federal agency inspectors general did not report any such transgressions.

While these points were missed in Washington news media stories when the report was released Friday, the congressionally mandated document is replete with accounts of how well the eavesdropping was operated.

At issue is Bush’s "terrorist surveillance program" started after the September 11 attacks to listen in on suspected al Qaeda telephone and e-mail communications coming intoor out of the country without court approval. The president signed orders authorizing the intercepts after becoming convinced that the cumbersome process of obtaining warrants might result in critical phone call might be missed.

[HUMAN EVENTS has been told that in Iraq, when intelligence gained the cell phone number of a terror suspect, the military spent hours trying to get court approval for a wire tap because the call was routed from Iraq to the U.S. and back to Iraq. That was one of the reasons the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act had to be — and was — amended last year.]

Referred to in the IG report as the President’s Surveillance Program, or PSP, the operation involved intercepting communications from suspected terrorists going into and out of the country.

The IG report refers to the intercepts as the President’s Surveillance Program, or PSP. The New York Times disclosed its existence in 2005 and it was ended in 2007.

Why was it ended? Because the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington issued orders authorizing some of the intercepts conducted under the PSP. In other words, the judges agreed the streamlined process was needed to protect the country.

A year later, Bush won a legislative battle — over the protests of Speaker Nancy Pelosi — to update a 1978 law giving the executive branch more freedom to conduct national security intercepts.

In other words, the program continues to this day, blessed by judges and then Congress, and is being used by President Obama.

Here is one report passage on how the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) handled information:

"NCTC analysts told the ODNI [inspector general] that the PSP-derived information was subject to stringent security protections. The NCTC analysts said that they received training regarding the proper handling of [intelligence community] signals intelligence, and they reported that they handled all such information, including PSP-derived information, consistent with standard rules and procedures."

And here is what the IG at the National Security Agency, which actually did the intercepts, reported on how the NSA administered PSP.

"NSA employees involved in the program received tailored training and their work was overseen to ensure that all activities were consistent with the letter and intent of the authorization and with the protection of civil liberties. The NSA OIG report concluded it found no evidence of intentional misuse of the PSP."

So much for screams from the left that Bush wanted to listen to people’s bedtime conversations. The joint IG report found the opposite: that the Bush administration put vigorous safeguards in place and followed them, as it desperately tried to prevent another attack on the United States.

Moreover, the Bush administration briefed members of Congress (including Pelosi in some meetings) 49 times. The briefings began the same month the program started and were delivered personally by Michael Hayden, the head of the NSA who went on to become CIA director.

"Hayden told us that during the many PSP briefings to members of Congress no one ever suggested that NSA should stop the program," the IG report said.

The CIA’s IG found that analysts relied on the intercepts. "Senior IC officials believed that providing IC analysts access to increased signals intelligence could lead to the discovery of terrorists in the U.S. and planned terrorist attacks," the report said.

Besides the CIA IG, the report was co-authored by inspectors general from the Pentagon, Justice Department, NSA and director of national intelligence.

Did the intercept program help protect the country? In a July 10 story, the New York Times reported that the IG’s report said that the “program’s effectiveness in fighting terrorism was unclear.” However, the FBI did a "comprehensive" survey in 2006 and found the information "of value."

The CIA IG quoted an agency official as saying, "The PSP was a key resource, and without it there would have been a missing piece of the picture." Another officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee that "PSP reporting was rarely the sole basis for an intelligence success, but that it frequently played a supporting role."

One problem in assessing its value is that the NSA would often send out reports on PSP intercepts without noting that the information came from that program, in order to protect its highly classified nature. As a result, government officials who acted on such information never knew it resulted from PSP. It did not get the credit it deserved.