Press Box

NSA Scoop or Just Bad Writing?

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

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.]

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.

When The Cell asserts that “an arrangement” was “quickly devised” letting the NSA and CIA intercept calls but makes no mention of who authorized the change or what the change was, it’s no wonder that a blogger—or a pesky press critic—might surmise that the new surveillance was authorized by a secret executive order.

The authors of The Cell retooled some language for the paperback edition, cleaning up for instance, this massive non sequitur: “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.” (To compare the hardcover and paperback passages, see this sidebar.) But even with the copy fixes, the paragraph confounds.

A grueling deadline is the best alibi for bad writing. Because the authors of The Cell published their book in hardcover 11 months after 9/11, I can sympathize with them. But not a whole lot.

Item Two: Porter Goss, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, took to the New York Times op-ed page last Friday to complain about the grievous harm leaks of classified information to the press have done to national security (“Loose Lips Sink Spies,” Feb. 10 [$]).

Goss gave only two thin examples. He continues to insist that press reports in 1998 caused Osama Bin Laden to give up his satellite phone, calling it “without question, one of the most egregious examples of an unauthorized criminal disclosure of classified national defense information in recent years.”

This causal link has been discredited by both the Washington Post in a piece by Glenn Kessler and by Slate in my column. That Bin Laden used a sat phone had been public knowledge at least since Time magazine reported it in December 1996. That the locations of sat phones could be traced was a no-brainer. And as Kessler writes, “Causal effects are hard to prove, but other factors could have persuaded bin Laden to turn off his satellite phone in August 1998. A day earlier, the United States had fired dozens of cruise missiles at his training camps, missing him by hours.”

The Goss op-ed carps about another story, which ran in the New York Times on Jan. 31, 2006. Its topic is the discussion at a CIA meeting of advanced techniques of detecting nuclear proliferation. If you read the Goss op-ed carefully—as carefully as you should read The Cell if you ever come across a copy—he doesn’t actually claim that the Times compromised security in any way.

Goss has a tendency to have his cake and eat it too, noted Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News a year ago. In 2003, Goss told the 9/11 commission, “There’s a lot of gratuitous classification going on. … We overclassify very badly.” Writes Aftergood:

Today, one would have to say: “He overclassifies very badly.”Or perhaps the CIA would put it this way: “We overclassify very well.”

Potential supergroup: The Porters, starring Porter Goss and Porter Wagoner, with lyrics by Katherine Anne Porter. Legal representation by Arnold & Porter when the Cole Porter estate sues. Send your supergroup ideas to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)