NSA Eavesdropping: Deep inefficiency

The NSA is admitting that most calls monitored by the warrant-less eavesdropping program are finding no terrorists on the line. The Bush Administration is casting its net so widely that it is wasting intelligence resources.

Osama Phone BurtPresident Bush likes to argue for the NSA's warrant-less eavesdropping by saying "If you're calling al Qaeda, we want to know why." It was a key argument during the State of the Union address. But now NSA sources are admitting that the program is yielding few or no terrorist connections.

Even as General Michael Hayden, deputy director of intelligence and the former head of the National Security Agency who started the eavesdropping program told Fox News Sunday that the program is "focused on al Qaeda," according to the Washington Post:

Intelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat, according to accounts from current and former government officials and private-sector sources with knowledge of the technologies in use.

Bush has recently described the warrantless operation as "terrorist surveillance" and summed it up by declaring that "if you're talking to a member of al Qaeda, we want to know why." But officials conversant with the program said a far more common question for eavesdroppers is whether, not why, a terrorist plotter is on either end of the call. The answer, they said, is usually no.

In fact, the warrant-less eavesdropping program that captured the communications of "hundreds of thousands" of individuals has yielded only 10It’s time for the government to recognize that protecting civil rights is the most efficient way to find real leads. or fewer "justified" domestic surveillance efforts each year, and those don't seem to have provided any substantive leads.

As I argued a couple weeks back, the Bush Administration's approach to eavesdropping is decreasing our intelligence capabilities by drowning NSA, CIA and FBI resources in useless leads. We'd be better off if the government stopped tapping telecommunications.

It's time for the government to recognize that protecting civil rights is the most efficient way to find real leads. The deliberative process required by the FISA courts, about which the Bush Administration constantly complains, is an effective filter for removing junk leads, not a barrier to capturing terrorists.

UPDATE: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales confirms during Senate testimony that, although "narrowly focused," the warrant-less eavesdropping program has swept up email and telephone calls by Americans with no ties to terrorism. It did not appear that the AG sees a contradiction between "narrowly focused" and such violations of privacy. Also, while he argues that there are a "great number of checks in place" to protect privacy, it is not clear why Gonzales believes those checks are less burdensome than the FISA process they usurp.