Surveillance Net Yields Few Suspects

"It's the nature of intelligence that many tips lead nowhere, but you have to go down some blind alleys to find the tips that pay off." -- Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden on Jan. 23. (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- Associated Press)

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Barton Gellman, Dafna Linzer and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Intelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat, according to accounts from current and former government officials and private-sector sources with knowledge of the technologies in use.

Bush has recently described the warrantless operation as "terrorist surveillance" and summed it up by declaring that "if you're talking to a member of al Qaeda, we want to know why." But officials conversant with the program said a far more common question for eavesdroppers is whether, not why, a terrorist plotter is on either end of the call. The answer, they said, is usually no.

Fewer than 10 U.S. citizens or residents a year, according to an authoritative account, have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well. That step still requires a warrant from a federal judge, for which the government must supply evidence of probable cause.

The Bush administration refuses to say -- in public or in closed session of Congress -- how many Americans in the past four years have had their conversations recorded or their e-mails read by intelligence analysts without court authority. Two knowledgeable sources placed that number in the thousands; one of them, more specific, said about 5,000.

The program has touched many more Americans than that. Surveillance takes place in several stages, officials said, the earliest by machine. Computer-controlled systems collect and sift basic information about hundreds of thousands of faxes, e-mails and telephone calls into and out of the United States before selecting the ones for scrutiny by human eyes and ears.

Successive stages of filtering grow more intrusive as artificial intelligence systems rank voice and data traffic in order of likeliest interest to human analysts. But intelligence officers, who test the computer judgments by listening initially to brief fragments of conversation, "wash out" most of the leads within days or weeks.

The scale of warrantless surveillance, and the high proportion of bystanders swept in, sheds new light on Bush's circumvention of the courts. National security lawyers, in and out of government, said the washout rate raised fresh doubts about the program's lawfulness under the Fourth Amendment, because a search cannot be judged "reasonable" if it is based on evidence that experience shows to be unreliable. Other officials said the disclosures might shift the terms of public debate, altering perceptions about the balance between privacy lost and security gained.

Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the nation's second-ranking intelligence officer, acknowledged in a news briefing last month that eavesdroppers "have to go down some blind alleys to find the tips that pay off." Other officials, nearly all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to discuss the program, said the prevalence of false leads is especially pronounced when U.S. citizens or residents are surveilled. No intelligence agency, they said, believes that "terrorist . . . operatives inside our country," as Bush described the surveillance targets, number anywhere near the thousands who have been subject to eavesdropping.

The Bush administration declined to address the washout rate or answer any other question for this article about the policies and operations of its warrantless eavesdropping.

Vice President Cheney has made the administration's strongest claim about the program's intelligence value, telling CNN in December that eavesdropping without warrants "has saved thousands of lives." Asked about that Thursday, Hayden told senators he "cannot personally estimate" such a figure but that the program supplied information "that would not otherwise have been available." FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said at the same hearing that the information helped identify "individuals who were providing material support to terrorists."

Supporters speaking unofficially said the program is designed to warn of unexpected threats, and they argued that success cannot be measured by the number of suspects it confirms. Even unwitting Americans, they said, can take part in communications -- arranging a car rental, for example, without knowing its purpose -- that supply "indications and warnings" of an attack. Contributors to the technology said it is a triumph for artificial intelligence if a fraction of 1 percent of the computer-flagged conversations guide human analysts to meaningful leads.

Those arguments point to a conflict between the program's operational aims and the legal and political limits described by the president and his advisers. For purposes of threat detection, officials said, the analysis of a telephone call is indifferent to whether an American is on the line. Since Sept. 11, 2001, a former CIA official said, "there is a lot of discussion" among analysts "that we shouldn't be dividing Americans and foreigners, but terrorists and non-terrorists." But under the Constitution, and in the Bush administration's portrait of its warrantless eavesdropping, the distinction is fundamental.


CONTINUED     1              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity