Spy agency destroys data, angering others in probe

By John Donnelly, Globe Staff, 10/27/2001

WASHINGTON - Analysts at the super-secret National Security Agency, acting on advice from the organization's lawyers, have been destroying data collected on Americans or US companies since the Sept. 11 attacks - angering other intelligence agencies seeking leads in the antiterrorist probe, according to two people with close intelligence ties.

Some Central Intelligence Agency analysts and staff members of the House and Senate intelligence committees fear that important information that could aid in the investigation, and perhaps even redirect it, is being lost in the process.

In heated discussions with the CIA and congressional staff, NSA lawyers have turned down requests to preserve the intelligence because the agency's regulations prohibit the collection of any information on US citizens. The lawyers said that preserving the information would invite lawsuits from people whose names appear in the surveillance reports, according to the two, both of whom are former senior US officials.

But people familiar with the NSA, including some who have worked for it, dismiss the idea that the agency needed to destroy the information immediately. Although that's been the NSA's practice in the past, they believe the NSA's own rules allow it to change that practice in the face of the threat of terrorism.

They believe the real reason behind the agency's stance is its longstanding distaste for sharing raw data with other intelligence organizations.

''There are some people in law enforcement who are very unhappy about it, because they need investigative leads,'' said Vincent Cannistraro, former director of counterterrorism at the CIA.

The NSA spies on foreigners and foreign governments, using high-tech operations to intercept phone calls, e-mail messages, and faxes around the world; collecting data from satellite operations; and translating documents in foreign languages.

By law, the NSA cannot spy on a citizen of the United States, an immigrant lawfully admitted to this country for permanent residence, or a US corporation. But it can, with court permission, target foreigners inside the United States, including diplomats.

If, in the course of surveillance, NSA analysts learn that it involves a US citizen or company, ''they are dumping that information right then and there,'' said the second official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

''There's a view of a lot of people in the intelligence community who say, `Wait a minute, it could be useful to the FBI; let them look at it.' It's been the subject of some heated discussion between the agency [CIA] and the NSA,'' said the official.

The NSA yesterday declined to comment on the issue. The CIA also declined to comment.

In the aftermath of the air attacks, former US officials and analysts say that information-sharing has proceeded fairly well between the CIA and the FBI. But their relationships with the NSA have not significantly changed, the officials said. The NSA - which is based in Fort Meade, Md., and operates under the Department of Defense - distributes analysis summaries of its intelligence-gathering to a select number of senior US officials, but it doesn't give its raw data - for example, the transcripts from wiretaps - to anyone. It is such raw data that are especially prized by intelligence analysts because they provide more context and leads than the distilled summaries.

It was unclear whether the government's new Homeland Security Office, led by former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, could help mediate the dispute, current and former officials said.

The antiterrorism bill signed by President Bush yesterday does not address the NSA's sharing of domestic data. It does, however, give the FBI greater freedom to share some of its investigative material with other intelligence agencies.

US Representative Charles F. Bass, a New Hampshire Republican who had served for four years on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he knows of a long list of problems arising from the rules governing the NSA, as well as the NSA's culture of keeping information in-house.

''I think it could be the biggest information problem that we face,'' Bass said in an interview. ''If somebody is abroad and they even mention the name of an American citizen, bang, off goes the tap, and no more information is collected.'' Once a US citizen or corporation is mentioned, NSA's rules dictate that it must stop that surveillance.

Bass said there should be a further examination of facilitating intelligence sharing. ''For four years, I listened to stories of intelligence failures, and it wasn't due to incompetence of anyone in the system, but that the system is so arcane.''

A congressional outcry in the mid-1970s on US intelligence abuses against American citizens led to many of the federal regulations strictly prohibiting the CIA and NSA from domestic spying.

One senior US intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said those civil liberty safeguards remain as important today.

''The NSA has good and longstanding reasons to destroy information collected domestically,'' the official said. ''If they do anything short of destroying the information, that smacks of domestic spying, and we have been through that before and don't want to do it again.

''The intelligence official said the NSA did share information ''in cases to ward off a threat.''But the former US officials said many investigators now were extremely frustrated that many possible leads stemming from the Sept. 11 attack weren't being followed because of the NSA position.''The intelligence committee staffs on the Hill are pounding hard to get something done on this,'' said one of the former officials. ''It should be done now, but it's going to take this government six months at a minimum to get its act together and get everyone in the intelligences communities in sync.''

Cannistraro said the intelligence agencies have made strides in recent years.

But the issues now with the NSA, he said, illustrate that much more could be done.


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