In March of 2004, virtually every member of the Justice Department's leadership was prepared to resign over the administration's warrantless wiretapping program. Thanks to former Deputy Attorney General James Comey's testimony, that much is well known. But even as Congress has debated giving the telecoms immunity from civil suits for participation in that program, it's still not understood precisely what was going on that caused such a revolt.
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In his new book on the Justice Department under George Bush, New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau, who, along with James Risen, broke the warrantless wiretapping story, sheds more light on this episode (while leaving plenty unexplained). But putting Lichtblau's telling together with recently reported details about the National Security Agency's data driftnet, it's possible to come to a fuller understanding of what was going on.
Shortly after 9/11, the administration began a much more aggressive surveillance program, a program that had two main components: an aggressive data mining program led by the National Security Agency and wiretapping done without a warrant that stemmed from leads generated by the data mining.
While that program was ongoing, the FISA court was still approving warrants submitted by the Justice Department like normal. But sometimes the two processes crossed. Sometimes the Justice Department would want a wiretap for someone who had already been wiretapped without a warrant. Lichtblau reports that "some 10 to 20 percent of all court warrants fell into this area of 'double coverage.'" Department lawyers had a clear reason for wanting to go through the court if possible: they could not build a legal case against a suspect if the surveillance was illegal.
In that case, the Department, with the consent of the chief judge of the FISA court, set up a system where only the chief judge would handle such applications -- since none of the other judges were privy to the program. It was a dicey process. James Baker, the Justice Department official in charge of intelligence issues, set up a process where any Department lawyers working under him could "opt out," if he or she didn't feel comfortable forwarding such a wiretap application to the court, Lichtblau reports. "Several lawyers" took him up on that offer.
But about that data mining. The NSA's driftnet spat out leads that FBI agents found largely useless. Lichtblau explains: