Did Bush's secret surveillance program save the Brooklyn Bridge?

Iyman Faris.jpgIyman Faris then...

In a bombshell story published on Friday, December 16, the New York Times informed the world that the Bush administration had secretly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of eavesdropping operations against Americans "without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying."

Because of administration concerns that publication might "jeopardize continuing investigations," the Times withheld this information for a year. But as the administration never tired of pointing out in the run-up to the Iraq war, inaction also has its consequences.

One wonders, for example, if the Senate Intelligence Committee would have been so quick to confirm General Michael Hayden as the nation's #2 intelligence official if the public had known he was running the NSA's secret program. One might even wonder what's meant by "a year." Did the Times learn of this program on December 16, 2004? Could it have been in November, or earlier? Might such news have affected, say, the election?

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These are fraught issues, constitutional bill-of-rights issues that would be hard for anyone to resolve, let alone our paper of record. Against the implacable necessities of the global war on terror, on one hand, the first amendment promise of freedom of speech (or not). On the other, the fourth amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures. Or not. Hm. Tough one.

But no point ruminating on mighta-beens. Much better to focus on the good that came out, the plots foiled, the terrorists effectively neutralized. Unfortunately, the Times only provides one unequivocal example:

"Several officials said the eavesdropping program had helped uncover a plot by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker and naturalized citizen who pleaded guilty in 2003 to supporting Al Qaeda by planning to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with blowtorches."

Jeez. After a year of what must have been editorial agony, you'd think the Times would have gotten the stakes right. Iyman Faris was guilty of a lot more than that. According to the government's complaint, in late 2000 or early 2001 (it doesn't specify), Faris downloaded some info on "ultralight" airplanes from a Karachi internet café. Around the same time, he ordered 2000 lightweight sleeping bags. And a year later, he bought "five or six" airline tickets to Yemen: all this - not more - for al Qaeda.

Unless you count the (do you wanna buy a) bridge thing. And that depends on what you mean by "planning," as in "planning...with blowtorches." Was it guys in ninja suits plotting how to take out the guards before scampering up tension cables? Or was it ‘Gee, that'd be cool,' like - oh - marrying Halle Berry?

From the Times' account, you can't tell. But luckily, the Department of Justice was more clear in announcing the causes for Faris's conviction:

"Faris admitted to traveling to New York City in late 2002 to examine the bridge, and said he concluded that the plot to destroy the bridge by severing cables was unlikely to succeed because of the bridge's security and structure. In early 2003, he sent a message that ‘the weather is too hot' - a coded message indicating that the bridge plot was unlikely to succeed."

So Faris was in fact found guilty of dissuading al Qaeda from bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge with blowtorches. Which is still a crime. I think.

In an article from CNN, New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly provided some details: "Kelly credited the posting of police in marked cars at the ends of the Brooklyn Bridge, where its suspension cables are considered most vulnerable to attack, for helping foil the plot."

So who saved the Brooklyn Bridge? Was it multi-billion dollar surveillance satellites, monitoring cellular conversations from thousands of miles away, or a couple of black-and-whites? NSA or NYPD? Laws of Bush or laws of physics? You decide.

faris 1.jpg...and now.

POSTSCRIPT: After his capture, Faris turned out to be a helpful double-agent for the FBI. "With agents directing and monitoring his every communication," TIME magazine wrote, "Faris sent messages to his bosses via cell phone and e-mail. ‘He was sitting in the safe house making calls for us,' says a senior Administration official. ‘It was a huge triumph for law enforcement.'" But it didn't help him. Faris was touted as a high-value capture, and received 20 years, the maximum sentence.

PPS: Actually, the FBI doesn't seem too convinced about the NSA's role in convicting Faris either.

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