Terror Watch: Did it Work?

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. In the British case, Justice Department officials told NEWSWEEK a year ago that investigators had made progress by using a controversial provision of the Patriot Act which allows authorities to monitor potentially suspicious activities in public libraries.

Current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials familiar with the two cases and with the range of intelligence methods the United States has used since 9/11 say that breakthroughs are usually the result of information from several different intelligence methods. The officials, who requested anonymity because they were discussing intelligence matters, said that it was sometimes hard to determine which specific intelligence tactic really led to a major breakthrough.

Some officials familiar with the NSA monitoring program insist it played a critical role in providing U.S. intelligence agencies with an invaluable source of "early warning" information about potential Qaeda sleeper cells and plots to attack U.S. targets. Others, including some congressional sources, however, have questioned whether the NSA program's results were really so useful.

In its initial story exposing the eavesdropping, The New York Times cited official claims that the program had helped U.S. authorities expose two major post-9/11 terror cases. One involved Iyman Faris, a former Ohio truck driver and self-confessed acquaintance of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Faris is serving a 20-year sentence in a federal maximum-security prison after confessing to a plot that included an alleged scheme to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge by burning through its suspension cables with a gas torch. The other case cited by the Times involved the arrest of a group of suspects in Britain who were allegedly planning to attack unspecified U.K. targets using homemade fertilizer bombs.

NEWSWEEK reported extensively on these cases when government investigations were coming to fruition. In both instances, officials originally indicated that key investigative developments came from sources other than NSA electronic eavesdropping--then still a closely guarded secret.

The best-known investigation was the case of Faris, a Columbus, Ohio, truck driver and naturalized U.S. citizen who pled guilty in 2003 to an alleged conspiracy that included the purported plot to cut down the Brooklyn Bridge. In interviews with the FBI, he also acknowledged visiting New York and casing the bridge, though later Faris recanted several admissions, including his acknowledgement that he had conducted surveillance of the bridge.

A transcript of Faris's October 2003 sentencing hearing, before Judge Leonie Brinkema in Federal Court in Alexandria, Va., makes cryptic references to two separate sources of intelligence that helped the federal investigation. Prosecutor Neil Hammerstrom Jr. told the judge that on March 19, 2003, two FBI agents and an officer from an antiterror task force went to interview Faris in Ohio following what the prosecutor described as "a call that was intercepted in another investigation." Hammerstrom said he didn't want "to get into too many details in open court." He indicated that when the agents first went to interview Faris, the suspect was not hostile and agreed to talk to them further, so they walked away from the interview without detaining him.

After Faris agreed to let them search his apartment, they came back the next day to do so. Later that day, according to Hammerstrom, the FBI got what he called "overseas source information that Mr. Faris had been tasked to go and look at the Brooklyn Bridge as a possible target of an attack by Al Qaeda." David B. Smith, Faris's current lawyer, says he is convinced this information came from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who had just been arrested in Pakistan. Armed with this information, the FBI then arrested Faris and later took him to the FBI academy at Quantico, Va., where he was questioned for several weeks and allowed to make cell-phone calls, which his lawyers believe were monitored with a warrant from the Justice Department's secret foreign-intelligence surveillance court. The Justice Department announced Faris's arrest, and guilty plea to terrorism charges, after the existence of the investigation was disclosed in a NEWSWEEK cover story.

Smith, who replaced another defense lawyer who had handled Faris's guilty plea, is now preparing legal papers on his client's instruction to try to re-open the case, based partly on the defendant's current claims that he lied to the FBI about his involvement in a Brooklyn Bridge plot. Smith says that, based on what prosecutors said in court at the time of Faris's guilty plea, he is "skeptical" as to whether the NSA's controversial monitoring program had "much of an impact" on the Faris case. "It's exaggerated to say that NSA wiretaps made this case," Smith told NEWSWEEK. Smith added that his client had recently claimed that while Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had tried to recruit him to terrorism, he only met the 9/11 mastermind to get material for a book he wanted to write about Al Qaeda. Faris says that he never really helped Mohammed, and Faris believes Mohammed fingered him to U.S. interrogators because he saw Faris as "worthless."

The second case cited by New York Times sources as an example of how the eavesdropping helped foil a terror plot is a U.K. investigation known to British authorities as Operation Crevice. This operation resulted in the arrest of a group of U.K. residents of Pakistani descent in early 2004 on charges of plotting to mount attacks in Britain using explosives made out of fertilizer. According to two British sources familiar with the case, who asked not to be identified because the matter is soon going to trial, U.K. police never established precisely what targets the plotters were allegedly going to attack, and the explosives were left for weeks in a storage locker without being used to build bombs.

A key witness in the case, according to the British sources, is a former New York resident named Mohammed Junaid Babar, who was detained by the FBI shortly before the U.K. arrests and later brought before a federal judge in Manhattan. Babar, a computer programmer, had left the United States after 9/11 and a few months later gave a widely broadcast TV interview, speaking in an American accent about his pro-jihad and anti-American views.

It is unclear how U.S. authorities knew Babar was returning to the United States in the winter of 2004--perhaps NSA monitoring played a role in tipping off U.S. authorities (Babar's lawyer could not be reached for comment). However he was captured, upon his return to the United States, Babar pled guilty to U.S. terror charges and agreed to become a government witness, according to limited documentation about the case in court files which were initially sealed, unsealed, resealed and then unsealed again. A lengthy statement Babar gave to investigators became a key piece of evidence in the U.K. prosecution of Operation Crevice suspects and in the investigation by Canadian authorities of another suspect who was working as a contract computer programmer at the Canadian Foreign ministry in Ottawa, according to three sources familiar with the case. The U.K. suspects are scheduled to go on trial in London in the near future.

A source familiar with the legal defense of the London suspects said British authorities had not given defense lawyers any indication that secret NSA eavesdropping could have played a part in breaking open the case.

But shortly before U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft left government service a year ago, top Justice Department aides told two NEWSWEEK reporters that U.S. investigators had learned of Babar's activities in part through a contentious surveillance method different from NSA spying: by using controversial provisions in the Patriot Act that gave the Feds new powers to obtain records of public-library patrons. The officials indicated that investigators had monitored Babar's Internet use at a New York public library during which he allegedly exchanged messages with terror suspects abroad.

Approached for comment about the role played by NSA monitoring, FBI spokesman Richard Kolko told NEWSWEEK it was a classified U.S. government program. "Federal law, as well as DOJ guidelines and FBI policy prohibits the FBI from discussing any aspects of this program," said Kolko. "The FBI, as an integral partner in the U.S. intelligence community, has established relationships with the other members of the intelligence community. In furtherance of our mission to detect and prevent an act of terrorism and in accordance with established protocols, we work closely with these other U.S. government agencies on a routine basis."