The Bush Administration has sought to defend its illegal domestic wiretapping program on the basis that it turned up "valuable intelligence" on terrorists within the United States. For example, Vice President Dick Cheney has claimed that listening to American's phone-calls "saved thousands of lives". But according to a story in today's New York Times, that turns out not to have been the case. Instead, the Bush Administration's paranoid eavesdropping was ineffective and a giant waste of the FBI's time.
A veritable flood of phone numbers and email addresses sourced from trawling internet traffic, grepping phone conversations for keywords, and tracing international and domestic calls were passed to the FBI for followup. And in virtually every case, they led to dead ends:
"We'd chase a number, find it's a schoolteacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism - case closed," said one former F.B.I. official, who was aware of the program and the data it generated for the bureau. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration."
The law enforcement and counterterrorism officials said the program had uncovered no active Qaeda networks inside the United States planning attacks. "There were no imminent plots - not inside the United States," the former F.B.I. official said.
The "intelligence" was so low-quality and the followups so pointless that agents jokingly began calling it "calls to Pizza Hut". And it wasted time they could have spent doing real work - such as investigating actual terrorists, rather than figments of the Administration's imagination.