NYT Spy Scoop Fizzling?

The Times has two lame follow-up stories to its supposedly explosive scoop that the Bush administration is eavesdropping, without prior court approval, on people in the U.S. communicating with people abroad with al-Qaeda ties.

First, reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau have a damp squib ("Spying Program Snared U.S. Calls -- Some Exchanges Are Said to Be Purely Domestic") in pursuit of their overhyped story from Friday on domestic terrorist surveillance by the Bush administration.

"A surveillance program approved by President Bush to conduct eavesdropping without warrants has captured what are purely domestic communications in some cases, despite a requirement by the White House that one end of the intercepted conversations take place on foreign soil, officials say. The officials say the National Security Agency's interception of a small number of communications between people within the United States was apparently accidental, and was caused by technical glitches at the National Security Agency in determining whether a communication was in fact 'international.'"

Here's the sum total of the evidence the Times presents: "But in at least one instance, someone using an international cellphone was thought to be outside the United States when in fact both people in the conversation were in the country."

So when the Times claims "some exchanges" in its headline, they apparently mean "at least one."

John Hinderaker at the Power Line blog is less than impressed with the paper's scoop.

"Wow, is this a scandal, or what? On rare occasions, the NSA has inadvertently recovered a conversation involving an al Qaeda operative who is normally stationed overseas and uses an international cell phone number, but who has in fact entered the United States. Even the Times should recognize that this circumstance makes it more urgent, not less so, for the al Qaeda operative's communications to be tracked. The idea that this kind of inadvertent intercept renders the program unlawful is risible on its face….Today's reporting continues to be argument-free."

Intelligence reporter Douglas Jehl has a lame rebuttal to Bush's claims that Congress was in fact briefed about the National Security Agency surveillance of suspected terrorists in the U.S. ("Spy Briefings Failed to Meet Legal Test, Lawmakers Say"). The story's text box explains that "The law requires written reports, not briefings." Ok.

Jehl's complaint seems pretty nit-picky, unless one is utterly enamored by Democratic anti-Bush complaints:

"The limited oral briefings provided by the White House to a handful of lawmakers about the domestic eavesdropping program may not have fulfilled a legal requirement under the National Security Act that calls for such reports to be in written form, Congressional officials from both parties said on Tuesday."

Jehl also complains, but also reveals that the "handful of lawmakers" is in fact a healthy-sounding figure:

"All told, no more than 14 members of Congress have been briefed about the program since it took effect in 2001, the Congressional officials said. Now lawmakers from both parties are debating whether those members-only briefings provided a sufficient basis for oversight of an activity that is only now coming under intense Congressional scrutiny."

Does any of this mean Congress and congressional Democrats weren't, in fact, briefed?

For more examples of New York Times bias, visit TimesWatch.

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Clay Waters's picture