Fox News chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle repeated the discredited claim that the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless domestic surveillance program led to the arrest of Al Qaeda accomplice Iyman Faris, a naturalized U.S. citizen who pleaded guilty in 2003 to plotting to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge. However, a January 17 New York Times report indicated that information gleaned from the warrantless NSA eavesdropping did not play "a significant role" in Faris's capture.
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On the February 2 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle repeated the discredited claim that the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless domestic surveillance program, secretly authorized by President Bush in 2001, led to the arrest of Al Qaeda accomplice Iyman Faris. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Faris pleaded guilty in 2003 to plotting to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge. But contrary to Angle's suggestion, a January 17 New York Times report indicated that information gleaned from the warrantless NSA eavesdropping program did not play "a significant role" in Faris's capture.
Angle echoed administration officials, Los Angeles Times columnist Max Boot, and Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, who all cited the Faris case as evidence that the warrantless surveillance program had saved lives. From Boot's January 18 column:
And although the government has occasionally blundered, it has also used its enhanced post-9-11 powers to keep us safe. The National Security Agency's warrantless wiretaps, which have generated so much controversy, helped catch, among others, a naturalized American citizen named Iyman Faris who pleaded guilty to being part of an Al Qaeda plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge.
But as Media Matters for America has noted, Angle's assertion that the NSA program led to Faris's arrest is contradicted by several press reports, including a January 17 New York Times article. That article cited "officials with direct knowledge of the Faris case" who disputed that "N.S.A. information played a significant role":
By the administration's account, the N.S.A. eavesdropping helped lead investigators to Iyman Faris, an Ohio truck driver and friend of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is believed to be the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Faris spoke of toppling the Brooklyn Bridge by taking a torch to its suspension cables, but concluded that it would not work. He is now serving a 20-year sentence in a federal prison.
But as in the London fertilizer bomb case, some officials with direct knowledge of the Faris case dispute that the N.S.A. information played a significant role.
Did the National Security Agency's controversial eavesdropping program really help to detect terrorists or avert their plots? Administration officials have suggested to media outlets like The New York Times -- which broke the story -- that the spying played a role in at least two well-publicized investigations, one in the United Kingdom and one involving a plan to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge.
But before the NSA's warrantless spying program became public, government spokesmen had previously cited other intelligence and legal tactics as having led to major progress in the same investigations. In the Brooklyn Bridge case, officials indicated that the questioning of a captured Al Qaeda leader had led to investigative breakthroughs in Ohio.
Further, a CNN.com article on Faris's guilty plea reported that in early 2003, Faris called off his plot to use gas cutters to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge because it was "unlikely to succeed."
Angle claimed that Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) "noted the NSA program prevented the bombing of the Brooklyn Bridge, prompting a moment of agreement with Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) about saving lives." But while Angle provided a clip only of Roberts's reference to the Brooklyn Bridge and Levin's response, a review of the transcript just before that exchange indicates that Levin may have been agreeing to a different assertion. In fact, it is unclear from the fuller transcript what Leven was agreeing to -- whether he agreed that it is difficult to estimate the number of lives that may have been saved by the program or whether he was agreeing that the NSA program substantially affected the Brooklyn Bridge plot.
From the February 2 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, which included testimony by Gen. Michael V. Hayden, deputy director of national intelligence and former director of the NSA:
LEVIN: You gave us the estimate that -- the vice president estimated that thousands of lives have been saved by this program. General, I just want to know: Can you estimate the number of lives that have been saved by this program?
HAYDEN: I cannot personally estimate the number of lives. Again, senator, as I said, this is about proving a negative. I think I mentioned in another form that if somebody had kicked in -- on Muhammad Atta's door in Maryland in July of 2001, it would still be very difficult to estimate.
LEVIN: I agree with you, but yet the vice president did that in public, and apparently there's no way to support that estimate that I know of or you know of, and my time is up.
ROBERTS: I think that Senator [Christopher S.] Bond [R-MO] is next. I think as to the number of lives have been saved it might have been -- how many were on the Brooklyn Bridge if it had blown up, or for that matter other threats that --
LEVIN: I agree with you.
From the February 2 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume:
ANGLE: Senator Levin, a Democrat of Michigan, suggested there is no evidence to back up comments by the vice president that the NSA program has prevented attacks and saved lives. General Hayden said you can't know in advance how many people might be saved by stopping an attack. Chairman Roberts noted the NSA program prevented the bombing of the Brooklyn Bridge, prompting a moment of agreement with Senator Levin about saving lives.
[begin video clip]
ROBERTS: How many people were on the Brooklyn Bridge if it had blown up, or, for that matter, other threats that --
LEVIN: I agree with you.
[end video clip]