You’d think after seven years in DC, I’d have developed an immunity to surprise at political mendacity, but every now and then, a truly heroic example of shamelessness can still astonish me. My morning feeds bring a doozy in the form of a putative “news” item titled “Patriot Act Likely Helped Thwart NYC Terror Plot, Security Experts Say.” It contains exactly no analysis with any actual relevance to said NYC terror plot. Instead, reporter Cristina Corbin appears to have called up two legal wonks to say broadly positive things about how the PATRIOT Act is helpful for law enforcement. But she can’t have spent too much time on the phone with them, because she also makes several glaring, elementary factual errors. Here’s the lede:
It’s too early to know what surveillance methods were used in the investigation of four men accused of plotting to bomb two New York synagogues, but national security experts say measures implemented under the Bush administration likely played a critical role.
The FBI launched an elaborate sting operation in June 2008 that culminated Wednesday in the arrest of four men who allegedly conspired to blow up two Bronx, N.Y., synagogues, and to shoot down military planes operating out of Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, N.Y.
Early as it is, Corbin could have looked to the work of some actual reporters to learn at least some of the methods that were used, and see whether it sounds like broad new surveillance powers were “critical”:
Remarkably, vast passages of the conspiracy the federal authorities described — the talk of killing Jews, the testing of the men’s would-be weaponry — played out on a veritable soundstage of hidden cameras and secret microphones, and involved material provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A house in Newburgh, a storage facility in Stamford, the planting of the would-be bombs in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale — everything was recorded, according to the complaint…. The investigation, for instance, began with the work of a confidential informant, who portrayed himself as an agent of a Pakistani terror organization, and who became a critical member of the men’s plot. …. Beginning in October, the informant began meeting Mr. Cromitie at a home in Newburgh that was wired with hidden cameras and microphones, the criminal complaint said. David Williams, Onta Williams and Mr. Payen attended these meetings, and the group discussed Mr. Cromitie’s desire to strike a synagogue in the Bronx and military aircraft at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh, according to the complaint.
In short, we have a confidential FBI informant who seems to have kicked the whole thing off, and who recorded their conversations in physical meetings at heavily bugged locations. Investigators may indeed have used PATRIOT Act powers over the course of this elaborate sting—hey, you’ve got them, why not?—but it seems beyond clear that this was fundamentally a case built around a human source. You don’t need the PATRIOT Act do any of the stuff described above, at any rate. And “early” as it is, the Times managed to get a decent picture of the case from court filings. Corbin doesn’t seem to have made any effort to dig into those for further detail—indeed, after the lede, there’s very little that couldn’t have been written seven years ago, because the rest of the article is nothing but a litany of stuff the PATRIOT Act does. Or rather, that’s what it claims to be: Corbin gets several really, really basic facts just flat wrong. Writes Corbin:
The Patriot Act — signed into law by President Bush in October 2001 — expanded wiretap authority to allow greater use of “roving wiretaps.” The provision permits the FBI to wiretap any telephone a suspected terrorist may be using without having to obtain court approval.
This is confusingly written: Roving wiretaps do require court approval for the target, they just don’t require that the particular phone lines be specified in advance. More importantly, the PATRIOT Act did not create roving Title III wiretaps for criminal investigations; those already existed. What the PATRIOT Act did was update FISA to include this same power for foreign intel surveillance. As the Fox article later notes, because the suspects here don’t appear to have been linked to any international terror network, it’s unlikely FISA would have been invoked. Corbin alludes vaguely to unnamed “civil liberty groups” who found the PATRIOT Act “too intrusive” without specifying which provisions they objected to or why. My recollection is that essentially nobody opposed the principle of allowing roving FISA wiretaps. The concern was that because FISA is somewhat more lax about identifying the target of surveillance or providing a specific nexus to criminal activity, tighter oversight was needed to keep it from “roving” too far afield. Back to Corbin:
Prior to the Patriot Act’s passage, law enforcement could wiretap only a landline — and authorities needed to acquire separate court approvals for every phone line they tapped.
That’s not just false, it’s ludicrous. Does Corbin sincerely believe that law enforcement officials acquired the ability to tap cell phone lines in 2001? Does she expect readers to believe it? I can’t fathom where she got this idea. And again, law enforcement had roving wiretap powers before PATRIOT, just not under FISA, which probably wasn’t used here.
Interestingly, the two security experts Corbin appears to have spoken with—however cursorily—for this rambling piece of speculation are never directly quoted as saying anything that would actually justify that headline. They talk in very general terms about why law enforcement finds PATIOT useful. But I can’t find a word from either of them directly supporting the more specific claim that it “likely played a critical role” in the New York sting. In other words, it looks like the editors picked a headline—”hey, we’ll do a piece on how useful PATRIOT was in busting these guys”—but then when Corbin couldn’t actually find any evidence for it, and couldn’t be bothered to do any proper reporting on the details of the case, she went ahead and wrote it anyway as a rehash of vintage 2001 talking points about the benefits of the law. This is lazy, but I’m sympathetic to sloth to a certain extent. What really kills me is that, even though the substance of the “story” here is over seven years old, Corbin still couldn’t get it right—couldn’t accurately report the basic contents of the 2001 law. I’ve got nothing against opinionated advocacy journalism—you want to do pieces talking up the virtues Bush-era surveillance law, go nuts—but it does still purport to be journalism. If there’s anyone left at Fox who takes that seriously, they’ll pull this error-laden embarassment forthwith.