After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the National Security Agency sent a flood of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and names to the FBI in search of terrorists, requiring hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips a month, says the New York Times. Virtually all led to dead ends or innocent Americans. FBI officials repeatedly complained that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators. The spy agency was collecting much of the data by eavesdropping on some Americans’ international communications and conducting computer searches of phone and Internet traffic. Some FBI officials and prosecutors also thought the checks, which sometimes involved interviews by agents, were pointless intrusions on Americans’ privacy.
President Bush calls the eavesdropping program a “vital tool” against terrorism; Vice President Dick Cheney said it has saved “thousands of lives.” The results of the program look very different to some officials charged with tracking terrorism. More than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials said the torrent of tips led them to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources and diverted agents from counterterrorism work they viewed as more productive. “We’d chase a number, find it’s a schoolteacher with no indication they’ve ever been involved in international terrorism – case closed,” said one former FBI official.