Boot repeated false, misleading claims on NSA domestic spying

In his Los Angeles Times column, Max Boot mischaracterized the opposition to the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance programs, offered a misleading defense of the National Security Agency's reported call-tracking operation, and falsely claimed that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act impeded a pre-9-11 terror investigation.

In his May 17 column, "Forget privacy, we need to spy more," Los Angeles Times columnist Max Boot repeated several unfounded and false claims regarding the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance programs. Boot baselessly asserted that critics of these programs want the U.S. government to “give up” electronic surveillance as a foreign intelligence tool. He emphasized that the millions of phone call records reportedly collected by the National Security Agency (NSA) do not include callers' personal information or the content of their communications. Furthermore, he falsely claimed that the probable cause standard of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) prevented the FBI from inspecting Zacarias Moussaoui's laptop prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Nonetheless, on the May 17 edition of Fox News' Big Story, host John Gibson concurred with Boot's assertions.

Boot's column concerned controversial domestic surveillance activities authorized by President Bush following 9-11 and made public in recent news reports. On December 16, 2005, The New York Times revealed that Bush had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop, without warrants, on the international communications of U.S. residents, in apparent violation of FISA, which requires court approval for domestic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes. A May 11 USA Today article further reported that the NSA has been collecting and analyzing the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans since 2001.

Following are the false claims Boot repeated in defense of the administration's actions:

Boot: Critics of the NSA programs “favor unilateral disarmament in our struggle against” terrorism

In his column, Boot repeatedly suggested that critics of the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping activities seek to halt the government's use of electronic surveillance. Boot wrote that "[i]f civil liberties agitators, grandstanding politicians and self-righteous newspaper editorialists have their way, we will have to give up our most potent line of defense." He later added that opponents of the programs “favor unilateral disarmament in our struggle against the suicide bombers.”

These characterizations echo a false claim White House senior adviser Karl Rove made in a January speech, in which he said that “some important Democrats clearly disagree” with the proposition that “if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why.”

But as Media Matters for America noted, critics of the NSA domestic spying program specifically oppose the administration's warrantless surveillance of U.S. residents in apparent violation of federal statute. Contrary to Boot's suggestion, seemingly no one has disputed that electronic surveillance is a “potent line of defense” in preventing future terrorist attacks or has argued in favor of “disarm[ing]” the government's eavesdropping capability.

Boot: The millions of phone records collected by the NSA “were anonymous and did not include the contents of any calls”

Boot downplayed the intrusiveness of the NSA's reported call-tracking program by noting that the phone records reportedly provided to the NSA “were anonymous and did not include the contents of any calls.” Since reports of this program, numerous administration supporters have put forward this defense. But as Media Matters noted -- and as the original USA Today report made clear -- the NSA can easily cross-reference phone numbers with various databases to obtain the callers' names and addresses.

Boot advanced this defense despite his clear understanding of the ease with which individuals' personal information can be acquired. Later in the column, he pointed out the widespread availability of such data in making the argument that administration critics' “concern with privacy” is overblown:

All this concern with privacy would be touching if it weren't so selective. With a few keystrokes, Google will display anything posted by or about you. A few more keystrokes can in all probability uncover the date of your birth, your address and telephone number and every place you have lived, along with satellite photos of the houses and how much you paid for them, any court actions you have been involved in and much, much more.

Moreover, in claiming that the NSA is not collecting the content of the calls, Boot ignored the reported link between the call-tracking program and the warrantless domestic surveillance program. According to The Washington Post, the data provided to the NSA by the major phone companies assists the agency in selecting targets for warrantless surveillance.

Boot: FISA's probable cause standard prevented the FBI from inspecting Moussaoui's laptop

Boot went on to criticize FISA as an “archaic law” and “a luxury we can no longer afford.” As evidence of how the statute has impeded U.S. intelligence efforts, he argued that, were it not for the law's “high standard of 'probable cause,' the FBI could have examined Zacarias Moussaoui's laptop in August 2001 and perhaps saved 3,000 lives.” In fact, FISA's evidentiary standard reportedly did not prevent FBI officials from inspecting the suspected terrorist's computer. According to a bipartisan finding by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the investigators did possess sufficient evidence against Moussaoui to acquire a FISA warrant. But the committee found that FBI attorneys' overly-stringent standard for establishing probable cause prevented the investigators from petitioning the FISA court for authorization.

In addition, Boot suggested that the telecommunications company Qwest should advertise “itself as the preferred telecom provider of Al Qaeda.” According to the May 11 USA Today article, Qwest refused to provide the NSA with the phone call records of its customers. Boot's comment was similar to that of Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke, who, during the “All-Star panel” segment on the May 17 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, stated that Qwest was “basically helping terrorists” because “to its discredit, [it] said it was not cooperating with the NSA.”

In the “My Word” segment of his show, Gibson described Boot as “something of an expert on security matters” and agreed with Boot's conclusion -- “that we need more spying, not less.”

From the May 17 edition of Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson:

GIBSON: Today in the L.A. Times, columnist Max Boot -- something of an expert on security matters -- correctly notes that we need more spying, not less. Also, for a little context here, it should be noted that Britain recently discovered there are 700 active Al Qaeda members running around Britain at large, who authorities are trying to locate and presumably jail.

Now, how did Britain discover this information? Wiretaps, that's how. The NSA is doing important work. I hope the people who have been demanding information get the information they need to realize this is not something they want stopped. That's “My Word.”