Pale Wire (Popscene)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Looking for Truth in the Muslim World
What makes a scoop?


His name may not sound familiar, but there's a good chance you spent a few tense hours with John Miller. He sat side by side with Peter Jennings for the network's marathon coverage after the Sept. 11 attacks. A cop turned journalist (who has since turned cop again) Miller found himself in a unique position after the towers fell. Not only was he one of the few journalists in the world to have directly interviewed Osama Bin Laden, as a former deputy police commissioner for New York City, he was one of the best sourced reporters on the biggest story in the world.

To his credit, Miller didn't fool around. Teaming up with writers Michael Stone, Chris Mitchell and an unnamed cast of stringers, he cranked out The Cell: Inside the 9/11 plot and How the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop it within a year. Now, after nearly four years, it's finally made it's way to PaleWire, all thanks to the nourishing bounty of the Barnes and Noble discount table.

And a hearty thanksgiving is owed. While no display of editorial filigree—poorly punctuated, peppered with lame cliches, set in anemic type face, swathed in a shabby cover and frequently cast in grammatically disastrous sentences, this book is a mess—such a quick turnaround on something so complete still impresses me in 2006. Miller et al provide a deep history of al Qaeda, tracing its roots back to the mujahideen movement in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The main thrust of the story, however, is provided by the struggle of New York City's anti-terrorism unit to grapple with what now looks like a grossly overlooked threat.

Why did they fail to stop the 9/11 plot? I'm sure you've heard it all before: risk-averse bureaucracy, turf wars over intelligence, little political resolve at the top. Considering Miller's past (and present) occupation, the plumes of cop-shop cigar smoke curling away from most of his anonymous sources, and the great pains he takes to hammer home how hard law enforcement works (ex. The officers who made arrests after the first World Trade Center bombing are credited with doing "the impossible"), it's easy to be skeptical of the book's argument that street-level agents don't bear much blame. But there's enough evidence behind his case that I'm sympathetic to the idea.

Despite all the subsequent reporting that's been done to better fill in the record and how much more complicated things have gotten since the invasion of Iraq, you can still learn a lot about 9/11, al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden in this book. It's worth the bargain-basement price just for Miller's first-person account of his late-90s trip to Afghanistan to interview Bin Laden. And if you're interested in learning more about the situation before the Patriot Act renewal debate hits Congress next month, here's a good resource for doing what legislative aides like to refer to as "fact-finding."

There's one thing I'm struggling to sort out. Maybe you can help. Check out this quote from the book's final chapter:
Just before the September 11 attacks, the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) had been monitoring communications traffic between suspected al Qaeda telephones around the world, noticing a distinct increase in traffic. There was a lot of "chatter" on the lines. Most of the conversations were in code. Right after September 11, the traffic on those phone lines quickly dropped, since the CIA and NSA were by charter not supposed to spy on Americans on U.S. soil. That was the FBI's job. As a result, in almost every case, calls from telephones in the United States and suspected al Qaeda phone numbers abroad were not monitored on the assumption that the U.S. party might be American. After September 11, all that changed. An arrangement was quickly devised so that the NSA and CIA would intercept any call from a U.S. telephone line to a suspected al Qaeda telephone anywhere in the world. Instantly, a roving national security wiretap order would apply and the FBI would monitor the call. In addition fast response teams from the nearest FBI office would rush to the call's point of origin and try and observe the caller.

Now here's the lead from the Dec. 16, 2005, New York Times story by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau that has caused so much consternation this past month:
Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible ''dirty numbers'' linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

Do you see any difference? The only things I see are the investigative role of the FBI sketched out in the first and the use of the phrase "without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required" in the second.

Is it possible that the Times big scoop wasn't even a scoop at all? Considering how the President and the Justice Department are threatening to put the paper's feet back on the fire with another leak probe, this could be an important question to have answered. Operator, put me through to Pinch Sulzberger.