Los Angeles Times columnist Max Boot claimed that the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless domestic surveillance program led to the arrest of Al Qaeda accomplice Iyman Faris. But contrary to Boot's assertion, a New York Times report indicated that information gleaned from the NSA eavesdropping program did not play “a significant role” in Faris's capture.
In his January 18 column, Los Angeles Times columnist Max Boot claimed that the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless domestic surveillance program, secretly authorized by President Bush in 2001, led to the arrest of Al Qaeda accomplice Iyman Faris. A naturalized American citizen, Faris pleaded guilty in 2003 to plotting to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge. But contrary to Boot's assertion, a January 17 New York Times report indicated that information gleaned from the warrantless NSA eavesdropping did not play “a significant role” in Faris's capture.
In the column, Boot defended the secret domestic wiretapping program as having “enhanced post-9/11 powers to keep us safe.” As an example of the program's efficacy, Boot -- echoing administration officials and Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman -- cited the Faris case:
Doubtless other innocent people have been detained or had their communications intercepted. No system is perfect. But there isn't a scintilla of evidence that these were anything but well-intentioned mistakes committed by conscientious public servants intent on stopping the next terrorist atrocity.
And although the government has occasionally blundered, it has also used its enhanced post-9/11 powers to keep us safe. The National Security Agency's warrantless wiretaps, which have generated so much controversy, helped catch, among others, a naturalized American citizen named Iyman Faris who pleaded guilty to being part of an Al Qaeda plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge.
No wonder polls show that most people continue to support Bush's handling of the war on terrorism. As long as federal surveillance remains targeted on the country's enemies, not on the president's, the public will continue to yawn at hyperbolic criticisms of the commander in chief.
But Boot's assertion that the NSA program led to Faris's arrest is contradicted by a January 17 New York Times article. That article cited “officials with direct knowledge of the Faris case” as disputing that “N.S.A. information played a significant role”:
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.
Did the National Security Agency's controversial eavesdropping program really help to detect terrorists or avert their plots? Administration officials have suggested to media outlets like The New York Times -- which broke the story -- that the spying played a role in at least two well-publicized investigations, one in the United Kingdom and one involving a plan to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge.
But before the NSA's warrantless spying program became public, government spokesmen had previously cited other intelligence and legal tactics as having led to major progress in the same investigations. In the Brooklyn Bridge case, officials indicated that the questioning of a captured Al Qaeda leader had led to investigative breakthroughs in Ohio.
Moreover, neither Boot nor others who have cited the Faris case in defense of the domestic surveillance program have explained why -- if NSA information did indeed play a role -- it was necessary to eavesdrop on him without a court order. If it was a matter of timeliness -- a justification that the Bush administration has repeatedly invoked -- then the NSA could have sought a warrant up to 72 hours after initiating the surveillance. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) permits such retroactive requests, as a December 22 Columbus Post-Dispatch editorial noted:
Federal officials said the [unwarranted domestic wiretapping] process helped capture a Columbus trucker, Iyman Faris, who has pleaded guilty to plotting to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge.
Nevertheless, the president and his agents did not have to break the 1978 [FISA] law. It contains emergency provisions that let federal agents get court approval up to 72 hours after the surveillance begins. Furthermore, the secret courts rarely have rejected requests for surveillance approval.
Timeliness, however, seems an unlikely rationale. While Boot's description of the case leaves the misleading impression that Faris's apprehension disrupted the Al Qaeda plot, Faris had, in fact, called off the plan to topple the Brooklyn Bridge months before he was arrested, after determining it was "unlikely to succeed."