How much damage did the Times do?

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau are the New York Times reporters who disclosed the highly classified NSA eavesdropping program in December 2005. In my view their behavior was blatantly illegal. In all likelikhood it did great damage to the national security of the United States. I wrote about their story and provided relevant links in the Weekly Standard column “Exposure.”

In any event, Risen and Lichtblau are principals in the story. In today’s New York Times, Risen and Lichtblau nevertheless cover the release of the unclassified version of the report of five Inspectors General on the NSA program (referred to in the report as the President’s surveillance program or PSP). The five IGs signing on to the report are attached to the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the CIA, the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Here are the first four paragraphs of Risen and Lichtblau’s story today:

While the Bush administration had defended its program of wiretapping without warrants as a vital tool that saved lives, a new government review released Friday said the program’s effectiveness in fighting terrorism was unclear.

The report, mandated by Congress last year and produced by the inspectors general of five federal agencies, found that other intelligence tools used in assessing security threats posed by terrorists provided more timely and detailed information.

Most intelligence officials interviewed “had difficulty citing specific instances” when the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program contributed to successes against terrorists, the report said.

While the program obtained information that “had value in some counterterrorism investigations, it generally played a limited role in the F.B.I.’s overall counterterrorism efforts,” the report concluded. The Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence branches also viewed the program, which allowed eavesdropping without warrants on the international communications of Americans, as a useful tool but could not link it directly to counterterrorism successes, presumably arrests or thwarted plots.

The report covered by Risen and Lichtlblau is only 38 pages long. The part of the report devoted to the efficacy of the NSA eavesdropping program before Risen and Lichtblau publicized it is extremely short, beginning at the bottom of page 31 and running to the top of page 36.

The various subsections of the report at pages 31-36 summarize the classified reports prepared by each of the Inspectors General individually. I thought it might be useful simply to cull a few quotes from these pages that are omitted by Risen and Lichtlbau in their story today. (I am typing these quotes myself from the PDF of the report and apologize in advance for any errors, typographical or otherwise.)

From the NSA Inspector General assessment (pages 31-32):

In May 2009 [former NSA head Michael] Hayden told NSA OIG that the value of the program was in knowing that the NSA signals intelligence activities under the PSP covered an important quadrant of terrorist communications.

From the Department of Justice Inspector General assessment (pages 32-33):

The DOJ OIG sought as part of its review to assess the role of PSP-derived information and its value to the FBI’s overall counterterrorism efforts. Director Mueller told the DOJ OIG that he believes the PSP was useful….

The DOJ OIG also examined several cases that have frequently been cited as examples of the PSP’s contribution to the IC [Intelligence Community]’s counterterrorism efforts. These assessments, more fully described in Chapter Six of the DOJ’s [classified] OIG report, generally were supportive of the program as “one tool of many” in the FBI’s anti-terrorism efforts.

From the CIA Inspector General assessment (pages 33-35):

Senior CIA officials told the CIA OIG tha they had received PSP reporting with information that was previously unavailable.

From the ODNI assessment (pages 35-36):

[Former Principal Deputy of the DNI Michael] Hayden said the PSP information allowed IC leaders to make valuable judgments regarding the allocation of scarce national security resources. Hayden described the PSP as an “early warning system” for terrorist threats. Hayden told the ODNI OIG that the PSP was extremely valuable in protecting the United States from an al-Qaida attack. He cited several examples of where he said the PSP information was used to disrupt al-Qaida operatives or assist in terrorism investigations.

Risen and Lichtblau mostly airbrush these assessmetns out of their highly selective story today. The reason is obvious. They have a vested interest in minimizing the damage that their own reporting — also unmentioned in today’s story — has done to the national security of the United States.

Given their own role in this story, the Times shouldn’t let Risen and Lichtblau continue to report on it. They have an obvious conflict of interest. The conflict is manifested in the lousy job they do in reporting on the IGs’ report on the NSA program today.

Click here for part 2 of this post.

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