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Report: NSA post-9/11 data sidetracked FBI

In the months following the Sept. 11 attacks, the NSA sent a torrent of names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses to the FBI that swamped the agency but usually led to dead ends or innocent Americans, a newspaper reported Tuesday.
/ Source: Reuters

In the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the National Security Agency sent a torrent of names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses to the FBI that swamped the agency but led in virtually every case to dead ends or innocent Americans, The New York Times reported in Tuesday editions.

FBI officials complained repeatedly to the secretive spy agency, which was collecting much of the data by eavesdropping on the international phone and Internet communications of targeted Americans.

The unfiltered data swamped FBI investigators, the newspaper reported.

Some FBI officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on the privacy of law-abiding Americans.

The bureau’s then-director, Robert Mueller, raised concerns about the legal basis for the eavesdropping program, which did not seek court warrants, the Times reported, citing an unidentified government official. Mueller asked senior administration officials “whether the program had a proper legal foundation,” but ultimately deferred to the Justice Department legal opinions.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act makes it illegal to spy on U.S. citizens in the United States without the approval of a special, secret court.

President Bush has said he ordered the domestic eavesdropping operation to fight terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks and that his actions were within the law.

Citing interviews with more than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials, the Times said the flood of NSA tips led to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources -- and diverted agents from work they viewed as more productive.

Judith Emmel, a spokeswoman for the office of the director of national intelligence, took issue with the FBI officials’ assessment, the Times reported, citing a statement last month by Gen. Michael Hayden, the country’s second-ranking intelligence official and director of the NSA.

“I can say unequivocally that we have gotten information through this program that would not otherwise have been available,” the Times quoted Hayden as saying.

Several of the unidentified law enforcement officials interviewed by the Times acknowledged they might not know of arrests from intelligence activities overseas that grew out of the domestic spying program.

Some of the officials said the eavesdropping program might have helped uncover people with ties to al-Qaida in Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis and Albany, New York.