NYT on the effectiveness of large-scale eavesdropping

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Today's NYT contains an article questioning the value of the NSA's post-9/11 wiretaps. It's mostly a bunch of un-sourced quotes from people at FBI who clearly resented getting context-free tips from NSA:
F.B.I. field agents, who were not told of the domestic surveillance programs, complained that they often were given no information about why names or numbers had come under suspicion. A former senior prosecutor who was familiar with the eavesdropping programs said intelligence officials turning over the tips "would always say that we had information whose source we can't share, but it indicates that this person has been communicating with a suspected Qaeda operative." He said, "I would always wonder, what does 'suspected' mean?"

"The information was so thin," he said, "and the connections were so remote, that they never led to anything, and I never heard any follow-up."

...

In response to the F.B.I. complaints, the N.S.A. eventually began ranking its tips on a three-point scale, with 3 being the highest priority and 1 the lowest, the officials said. Some tips were considered so hot that they were carried by hand to top F.B.I. officials. But in bureau field offices, the N.S.A. material continued to be viewed as unproductive, prompting agents to joke that a new bunch of tips meant more "calls to Pizza Hut," one official, who supervised field agents, said

...

Aside from the director, F.B.I. officials did not question the legal status of the tips, assuming that N.S.A. lawyers had approved. They were more concerned about the quality and quantity of the material, which produced "mountains of paperwork" often more like raw data than conventional investigative leads.

"It affected the F.B.I. in the sense that they had to devote so many resources to tracking every single one of these leads, and, in my experience, they were all dry leads," the former senior prosecutor said. "A trained investigator never would have devoted the resources to take those leads to the next level, but after 9/11, you had to."

Very high levels of false positives are of course what you would expect from the kind of program that it sounds like NSA was running. And it's not clear that just because the agents on the ground feel frustrated that it's not worth doing. The key question, of course, is what an acceptable overall level of efficiency is. Unfortunately, it's hard to have this discussion without any good data on how effective the whole thing is. To whit:

By the administration's account, the N.S.A. eavesdropping helped lead investigators to Iyman Faris, an Ohio truck driver and friend of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is believed to be the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Faris spoke of toppling the Brooklyn Bridge by taking a torch to its suspension cables, but concluded that it would not work. He is now serving a 20-year sentence in a federal prison.

But as in the London fertilizer bomb case, some officials with direct knowledge of the Faris case dispute that the N.S.A. information played a significant role.

By contrast, different officials agree that the N.S.A.'s domestic operations played a role in the arrest of an imam and another man in Albany in August 2004 as part of an F.B.I. counterterrorism sting investigation. The men, Yassin Aref, 35, and Mohammed Hossain, 49, are awaiting trial on charges that they attempted to engineer the sale of missile launchers to an F.B.I. undercover informant.

In addition, government officials said the N.S.A. eavesdropping program might have assisted in the investigations of people with suspected Qaeda ties in Portland and Minneapolis. In the Minneapolis case, charges of supporting terrorism were filed in 2004 against Mohammed Abdullah Warsame, a Canadian citizen. Six people in the Portland case were convicted of crimes that included money laundering and conspiracy to wage war against the United States.

If this is all they got, then the ROI doesn't look very good. On the other hand, maybe it's just the tip of the iceberg. The problem is that we don't have hard data either way and organizations are really bad at judging the effectiveness of their own processes. Clearly we're badly in need of having some mechanism for making these evaluations without revealing a lot of classified (even if misclassified) information to the public. Any suggestions?

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6 Comments

All powers ceded to government are done on the basis of trust that they won't be abused. Either you trust the President, or you trust the lawyers at the top (to resign in protest), or you trust the members of the intelligence committees (who are protected by the constitution if they out classified information on the floor), or you are stuck.

Part of the proof that this is a tempest in a teacup is that none of the D intelligence committee members have gone to the floor with the information you request. They know that the ROI is much, much, higher than they are letting on, and they are relying upon the MSM and the ignorance of most people to score points. They know that the Rs cannot refute them without compromising classified material, and they are using it to maximum advantage.

As for the flood of data to the FBI, "First they criticized us for not connecting the dots..." If you worked for the NSA on 9/15/01, how quickly would YOU have been to declare a communication innoculous?

Not that I'm actually advocating this, but it seems the canonical way to black box test the effectiveness of a search process like this is to set up a honeypot of some kind and see how long before it's found.

@Nathan:

A top FISA court judge resigned over the fact that the President ignored the requirement that warrants for such activity be obtained. Then AG Ashcroft, himself not exactly an ACLU member, refused to sign onto this program, as had an underling over whose head the Administration decided to go. This story only saw the light of day because career intelligence personnel let the NYT in on it. What do you want as "proof" that this is serious, Dick Cheney's objection?

BTW, the first sentence of your remark is untrue. Checks and balances exist to act as controls against abuse. Trust is emphatically not the mechanism.

You have to trust either the checker or the balancer for the checks and balances to be of any value. Otherwise, they can collude against you.

As for the particulars, this practice has been done by every President back to Carter. The FISA judge that resigned, a D appointee, did not do so until the Ds started the drumbeat over this matter.

This information was held for over a YEAR by the media outlet that released the story while the source wrote his book. The story came out just as the Iraqis were holding their election. During this entire time, they were risking being scooped. Is this the signature of a major civil rights issue or of a political attack?

Can you provide the Ashcroft reference? It is news to me.

Terence, I think your honeypot is a most excellent idea. Please set one up & let us know how it goes.

Nathan, do you think that inmates at Guantanamo Bay get wifi access? It might be hard to report the results back.

@Nathan:

The "source" I refer to is not James Risen. He is a reporter. "Source", as I use the term, refers to the people who spoke to Risen. Risen himself is but a conduit.

Ashcroft reference may be found at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10663996/site/newsweek/

Quoting that source:

"[...]NEWSWEEK has learned, ferocious behind-the-scenes infighting stalled for a time the administration's ambitious program of electronic spying on U.S. citizens at home and abroad.

On one day in the spring of 2004, White House chief of staff Andy Card and the then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales made a bedside visit to John Ashcroft, attorney general at the time, who was stricken with a rare and painful pancreatic disease, to try—without success—to get him to reverse his deputy, Acting Attorney General James Comey, who was balking at the warrantless eavesdropping. "

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