NSA scoop or just bad writing?

Media criticism.
Feb. 16 2006 5:47 PM

NSA Scoop or Just Bad Writing?

Rereading The Cell. Also, Porter Goss is full of it.

The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It, by John Miller and Michael Stone with Chris Mitchell

Blogger Ben Welsh filed a speculative item last month after reading a showstopper of a paragraph in The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It.

The book, published in 2002 and written by John Miller and Michael Stone with Chris Mitchell, appeared to scoop the New York Times reports by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the NSA's warrantless surveillance of Americans and others inside the United States ( Dec. 16, Dec. 21, and Dec. 24). On Page 323 The Cell reports:

Just before the September 11 attacks, the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) had been monitoring communications traffic between suspected al Qaeda telephones around the world, noticing a distinct increase in traffic. There was a lot of "chatter" on the lines. Most of the conversations were in code. Right after September 11, the traffic on those phone lines quickly dropped, since the CIA and NSA were by charter not supposed to spy on Americans on U.S. soil. That was the FBI's job. As a result, in almost every case, calls from telephones in the United States and suspected al Qaeda phone numbers abroad were not monitored on the assumption that the U.S. party might be an American. After September 11, all that changed. An arrangement was quickly devised so that the NSA and CIA would intercept any call from a U.S. telephone line to a suspected al Qaeda telephone anywhere in the world. Instantly, a roving national security wiretap order would apply and the FBI would monitor the call. In addition fast response teams from the nearest FBI office would rush to the call's point of origin and try and observe the caller. Alarm bells started going off beginning in early March. The call level was high again, peaking to the same levels it had reached before September 11. If high levels of "chatter" signaled another attack, the FBI needed to know immediately who the al Qaeda operators here were. But when the fast response teams got to the phones the callers were always gone. Calls from New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and other cities, to numbers in Europe, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates were all made on pre-paid calling cards that were untraceable. [Emphasis added.]

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Welsh compared this passage with the opening two paragraphs in the Times Dec. 16 account, which state:

Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communication

Obviously, the Times reports offer oceans of detail compared with the rivulet captured by The Cell, but its wording suggests that the book may have stumbled across the seed that Risen brought to full flower. Welsh came to no conclusions about whether the book had scooped the Times but sent me his blog item with his endorsement that I pursue the matter.

An interesting wrinkle to this story is that the lead author of The Cell, John Miller, now serves as the FBI's assistant director for public affairs. In a previous life, he worked for ABC News. Not just a pretty face, he interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998 for the network. He has also held positions at both the New York Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department, and his trophy case contains the standard number of Emmys, Peabodys, and DuPonts harvested by an accomplished broadcast journalist.

Miller states to me unequivocally that the passage was not about warrantless NSA surveillance. In an e-mail composed in G-man prose, he writes:

The investigative techniques described in the book The Cell refer to "roving national security wiretap order(s)" which involves the use of new FISA powers under the USA PATRIOT ACT. The USA PATRIOT ACT extended the use of FISA court-authorized roving wiretaps to National Security investigations for the first time. Use of FISA orders is not consistent with the "NSA program" either as reported by the New York Times or as described in testimony by the attorney general before Congress.

I accept Miller's denial if only because The Cell passage's vague language and bad writing cause it to unravel under a close reading. For instance, its categorical statement that the NSA "by charter" is not supposed to spy on Americans on U.S. soil  is wrong. A FISA order could authorize such NSA surveillance before passage of the obnoxiously titled USA PATRIOT Act. Although Miller's e-mail says the techniques described in The Cell involved the USA PATRIOT Act, I find no mention of it or FISA in his book. The hardcover edition contains no endnotes or index to aid that search. The index and endnotes added to the paperback don't, either.

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