"Several officials said the eavesdropping program had helped uncover a plot by Iyman Faris, an Ohio trucker and naturalized citizen who pleaded guilty in 2003 to supporting Al Qaeda by planning to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with blowtorches. What appeared to be another Qaeda plot, involving fertilizer bomb attacks on British pubs and train stations, was exposed last year in part through the program, the officials said. But they said most people targeted for N.S.A. monitoring have never been charged with a crime, including an Iranian-American doctor in the South who came under suspicion because of what one official described as dubious ties to Osama bin Laden."
However, that's not the point. As people like Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein have pointed out, the issue is one of Presidential power, an unprecedented arrogation of authority over American lives to a single branch of government under the control of one person. I suspect that the reasons for this are not as devious as might be supposed, and that the root motive was the fact that this administration does not like to be contained, whether by the United Nations or American laws, and will use any excuse to gain freedom of action. But this is not healthy for a democratic society. Results count, but so does process.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum notes that the FISA court almost always approves requests Almost, as in well over 99% of the time. He also calls attention to the point that the court can grant approval after the fact in emergency situations. The Josh Marshall post he links to, however, notes that 2003 marked a change in court behavior. This is probably significant, but why? Presumably something changed in the administrations policy regarding their use, but what?
It's possible there are sound intelligence reasons leading to a dispute between the administration and the court over the proper use of these powers, and we legitimately won't find out for decades. On the other hand, my trust in the Bush administration really isn't that great.
UPDATE: Actually, "unprecedented" might be extreme. Pejman Yousefzadeh leads me to do some googling which turns up Operation Shamrock:
"Besides intercepting ILC communications at radio stations, NSA, GCHQ and their counterparts also collected printed copies of all international telegrams from public and commercial operators in London, New York and other centres. They were then taken to sigint analysts and processed in the same way as foreign telegrams snatched from the air at sites like Chicksands and Kirknewton. Britain had done this since 1920, and the United States since 1945. The joint programme was known as Operation Shamrock, and continued until it was exposed by US Congressional intelligence investigations in the wake of the Watergate affair.
On 8 August 1975, NSA Director Lt General Lew Allen admitted to the Pike Committee of the US House of Representatives that : 'NSA systematically intercepts international communications, both voice and cable.' He also admitted that 'messages to and from American citizens have been picked up in the course of gathering foreign intelligence'. At a later hearing, he described how NSA used '"watch lists" an aid to watch for foreign activity of reportable intelligence interest'.
US legislators considered that these operations might have been unconstitutional. During 1976, a Department of Justice team investigated possible criminal offences by NSA. Part of their report was released in 1980 It described how intelligence on US citizens, known as MINARET 'was obtained incidentally in the course of NSA's interception of aural and non-aural (e.g, telex) international communications and the receipt of GCHQ-acquired telex and ILC (International Leased Carrier) cable traffic (SHAMROCK)" (emphasis in original)."