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Late 2001: NSA Domestic Wiretapping Ties Up FBI with Bad Leads

The National Security Agency begins sending data—consisting of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and names—to the FBI that was obtained through surveillance of international communications originating within the US (see After September 11, 2001 and October 2001). The NSA sends so much data, in fact, that hundreds of agents are needed to investigate the thousands of tips per month that the data is generating. However, virtually all of this information leads to dead ends and/or innocent people. FBI officials repeatedly complain that the unfiltered information is bogging down the bureau: according to over a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials, the flood of tips provide them and their colleagues with very few real leads against terrorism suspect. Instead, the NSA data diverts agents from more productive work. Some FBI officials view the NSA data as pointless and likely illegal intrusions on citizens’ privacy. Initially, FBI director Robert Mueller asks senior administration officials “whether the program had a proper legal foundation,” but eventually defers to Justice Department legal opinions. One former FBI agent will later recall, “We’d chase a number, find it’s a schoolteacher with no indication they’ve ever been involved in international terrorism—case closed. After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration.” A former senior prosecutor will add, “It affected the FBI in the sense that they had to devote so many resources to tracking every single one of these leads, and, in my experience, they were all dry leads. A trained investigator never would have devoted the resources to take those leads to the next level, but after 9/11, you had to.” Former NSA director Bobby Ray Inman says that the problem between the FBI and the NSA may stem in part from their very different approaches. Signals intelligence, the technical term for the NSA’s communications intercepts, rarely produces “the complete information you’re going to get from a document or a witness” in a traditional FBI investigation, he says. And many FBI officials are uncomfortable with the NSA’s domestic operations, since by law the NSA is precluded from operating inside US borders except under very specific circumstances. [New York Times, 1/17/2006]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Bobby Ray Inman, Robert S. Mueller III

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

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