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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Spy v. Spy

As Eric points out in Today's Papers, there's something off in the way the New York Times decided to play this morning's NSA story, which featured FBI sources whining about all the false leads generated by the NSA wiretap program (and very forcefully deflecting any blame for the program). "[V]irtually all of them, current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans," according to the Times. But three grafs later we get this: "More than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials...said the torrent of tips 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." (Emphasis mine, obviously.)

So why isn't the headline, "Secret NSA Wiretaps Led FBI to 'Potential Terrorists"? I don't know what a potential terrorist is, but it seems pretty clear that the NSA program turned up at least one. It seems like the FBI sources are attempting to attack the wiretap program on bureaucratic and pragmatic grounds: Screw the Constitution, it's a waste of time and shoeleather anyway. But that's a very tough argument to make, because all you need is one good hit to justify all the effort. And the FBI obviously can't make the case that zero good leads have emerged, or you wouldn't have all that ass-covering language attributed to counterterrorism sources.

Of course, if you oppose the illegal wiretaps, as I do, you have to be willing to do so even if they work. Their utility or efficacy shouldn't enter into the argument.