Thursday, December 22, 2005

Terror Is a Beard 

Our BARBARic-in-absentia colleague Brother Kenya thought there was something just a little odd about the revelation that Bush and his gang decided to circumvent the FISA court in spying on American citizens -- a step they had to take, we are assured, because our national security is at risk, because terrorists are among us plotting our destruction, but mainly because paperwork is hard. It's hard work ("'For FISA, they had to put down a written justification for the wiretap,' said the official. 'They couldn't dream one up.'").

Several days passed before he finally realized what was bothering him. It was a story he'd read back in March of this year:
[F]or all the worry about Osama bin Laden's sleeper cells or agents in the United States, a secret FBI assessment concludes it knows of none.

The 32-page assessment says flatly, "To date, we have not identified any true 'sleeper' agents in the US," seemingly contradicting the "sleeper cell" description prosecutors assigned to seven men in Lackawanna, N.Y., in 2002.

"Limited reporting since March indicates al-Qa'ida has sought to recruit and train individuals to conduct attacks in the United States, but is inconclusive as to whether they have succeeded in placing operatives in this country," the report reads. "US Government efforts to date also have not revealed evidence of concealed cells or networks acting in the homeland as sleepers."

It also differs from testimony given by FBI Director Robert Mueller, who warned in the past that several sleeper cells were probably in place . . . .

When the secret report was issued last month, on Feb. 16, Mueller testified at a hearing before the same committee that the lack of evidence concerned him. "I am concerned about what we are not seeing," he said.
Which leads Brother Kenya to wonder:
But, come on, the NSA wiretapping operation had been ongoing for at least two years at that point, and presumably the information they garnered was passed along to the FBI so that "investigations" could commence. If the FBI wasn't sipping from these taps, as it were, and Mueller was not being disingenuous when he expressed concern over what isn't known, then something just doesn't compute here. Surely the secret spying had hit some kind of paydirt; surely Dearborn alone has at least one disaffected Al Qaeda wannabe . . . .

The thing is, it's all in the timing. NSA starts spying on U.S. citizens in 2002. Mueller says he's worried about the apparent absence of sleeper cells in 2005. What the hey. Either the NSA's activities are a true fishing expedition, which is scary from a civil liberties angle, or the FBI has been unable to build cases against the subjects of the wiretaps, Americans who are said to have links to tarists (i.e., elderly relatives in Pakistan). Maybe this is what happens when you start looking for demons up your own asshole.
A third obvious possibility that should be added to the mix: perhaps the unauthorized surveillance activities were never directed at al Qaeda (or its associates) in the first place.

(Thanks to our august colleague Shakespeare's Sister for the tip.)

UPDATE (via our eminent colleague Atrios): Or, as Laura Rozen puts it, if Mr. Bush has authorized warrantless surveillance of several thousand Americans, all of them putatively linked to terrorist groups, where are the arrests?

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