FACT CHECK: Debunking Administration Talking Points on Warrantless Spying

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Since President Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program was made public, White House officials have justified their violation of federal FISA law by arguing that the program had made our country safer. A report in this morning’s New York Times may help put this to rest. Below, we lay out the spin and provide the facts:

SPIN – NSA SPYING STOPPED POSSIBLE TERRORIST ATTACKS IN THE UNITED STATES: “The activities I have authorized make it more likely that killers like these 9/11 hijackers will be identified and located in time. And the activities conducted under this authorization have helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad.” [President Bush, 12/17/05]

FACT – PROGRAM HAS UNCOVERED “NO IMMINENT PLOTS…INSIDE THE UNITED STATES”: “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.” [New York Times, 1/17/06]

SPIN – PROGRAM ONLY SPIES ON THOSE WITH CLEAR LINKS TO AL QAEDA: “Another very important point to remember is that we have to have a reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication is a member of al Qaeda, affiliated with al Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with al Qaeda, or working in support of al Qaeda.” [Attorney General Gonzales, 12/19/05]

FACT – INFORMATION GIVEN TO FBI OFTEN “NEVER LED TO ANYTHING”: “F.B.I. field agents, who were not told of the domestic surveillance programs, complained that they often were given no information about why names or numbers had come under suspicion. A former senior prosecutor who was familiar with the eavesdropping programs said intelligence officials turning over the tips ‘would always say that we had information whose source we can’t share, but it indicates that this person has been communicating with a suspected Qaeda operative.’ He said, ‘I would always wonder, what does “suspected” mean?’ ‘The information was so thin,’ he said, ‘and the connections were so remote, that they never led to anything, and I never heard any follow-up.'” [New York Times, 1/17/06]

SPIN – PROGRAM IS TARGETED AND “VERY LIMITED IN NATURE”: “It is very limited in nature.” [Scott McClellan, 1/3/06]

FACT -PROGRAM HAD FBI CHASING “THOUSANDS OF TIPS A MONTH”: “In the anxious months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Agency began sending a steady stream of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names to the F.B.I. in search of terrorists. The stream soon became a flood, requiring hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips a month. [“¦] ‘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.'” [New York Times, 1/17/06]

SPIN – PROGRAM STOPPED FERTILIZER BOMB PLOT: “What appeared to be another Qaeda plot, involving fertilizer bomb attacks on British pubs and train stations, was exposed last year in part through the program, the officials said.” [New York Times, 12/16/05]

FACT – FBI OFFICIALS QUESTION THIS ASSERTION: “But, along with several British counterterrorism officials, some of the officials questioned assertions by the Bush administration that the program was the key to uncovering a plot to detonate fertilizer bombs in London in 2004.” [New York Times, 1/17/06]

SPIN – PROGRAM STOPPED BROOKLYN BRIDGE PLOT: “Several officials said the eavesdropping program had helped uncover a plot by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker and naturalized citizen who pleaded guilty in 2003 to supporting Al Qaeda by planning to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with blowtorches.” [New York Times, 12/16/05]

FACT – INVESTIGATORS LEARNED OF PLOT “THROUGH”¦OTHER MEANS”: “The F.B.I. and other law enforcement officials also expressed doubts about the importance of the program’s role in another case named by administration officials as a success in the fight against terrorism, an aborted scheme to topple the Brooklyn Bridge with a blow torch. Some officials said that in both cases, they had already learned of the plans through interrogation of prisoners or other means.” [New York Times, 1/17/06]