IT DIDN’T WORK…. Throughout the debate over the Bush/Cheney warrantless wiretap program, proponents insisted that its effectiveness overrode constitutional concerns. The surveillance may not have had any foundation in American law, but it least it stopped the bad guys. The former president explicitly said the surveillance program “helped prevent attacks and save American lives.”
Like most of the former president’s claims, this hasn’t withstood scrutiny. A report issued yesterday by inspectors general from five intelligence agencies casts new light on the scandalous wiretap scheme.
The report, mandated by Congress last year and produced by the inspectors general of five federal agencies, found that other intelligence tools used in assessing security threats posed by terrorists provided more timely and detailed information.
Most intelligence officials interviewed “had difficulty citing specific instances” when the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program contributed to successes against terrorists, the report said.
While the program obtained information that “had value in some counterterrorism investigations, it generally played a limited role in the F.B.I.’s overall counterterrorism efforts,” the report concluded. The Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence branches also viewed the program, which allowed eavesdropping without warrants on the international communications of Americans, as a useful tool but could not link it directly to counterterrorism successes, presumably arrests or thwarted plots.
The unclassified version of the report, which is online (pdf), is chock-full of interesting angles to the controversy, including hints at “political pressure in preparing the so-called threat assessments that helped form the legal basis for continuing the classified program.”
Other items of note:
* John Yoo’s role was singled out as being especially scandalous — the notorious OLC lawyer endorsed the program’s legality before his superiors knew of its existence. Yoo’s absurd arguments eventually “jeopardized” the Justice Department’s relations with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
* Ashcroft approved of the program but wasn’t fully informed of what the NSA was doing.
* Any hopes the administration had in making the program effective were undermined by officials’ “extraordinary and inappropriate” secrecy.
* The White House told the Justice Department at one point that the DOJ’s legal opinions weren’t especially important. Cheney was prepared to see Bush reauthorize the program in 2004, even if the Justice Department objected.
* Remember when Andy Card and Alberto Gonzales went to Ashcroft’s hospital bed? Bush sent them there.
* Gonzales’ testimony to Congress on the program was “confusing, inaccurate, and … had the effect of misleading.”
* “Most” of the leads generated by the program “were determined not to have any connection to terrorism.”
* The number of Americans who were spied on as part of this program was, as Marc Ambinder put it, “pretty darn big.”
And then there are the unresolved questions about the warrantless wiretap, which the report does not answer.