Here’s why NSA officials never seem to stop talking about 9/11

October 30, 2013

General Keith Alexander (L), director of the National Security Agency (NSA) testifies at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington October 29, 2013. Top U.S. intelligence officials appeared at a congressional hearing on Tuesday amid a public uproar that has expanded from anger over the National Security Agency collecting the phone and email records of Americans to spying on European allies. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper watches on at right. (REUTERS/Jason Reed )

NSA talking points prepared to respond to the wave of leaks about surveillance practices advised officials to cite 9/11 to justify programs, according to a document obtained by Al Jazeera America via a Freedom of Information request.

“I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent,” was among the suggested responses, as was "NSA and its partners must make sure we connect the dots so that the nation is never attacked again like it was on 9/11."

And it appears officials have taken that advice to heart: Sept. 11 or 9/11 was mentioned 14 times during a House Intelligence Committee hearing about the leaks Tuesday -- five of them from NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander. In one of his early mentions he gave the specific death count for the terrorist attack when explaining the origin of the programs: "How did we end up here? 9/11 -- 2,996 people were killed in 9/11."

Both representatives of the intelligence community and congressional advocates for surveillance programs invoked 9/11 to argue that such a tragedy might not have happened if they had access to the programs revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in place before the attack.  "Prior to 9/11, we had no way of connecting those dots," argued Alexander. But now, he says, the intelligence agency has "programs to do that." Rep. Charles "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D-Md.) used similar language, claiming, "these dots should have and likely could have been connected to prevent 9/11, and are necessary to prevent the next attack. "

It's been 12 years since the attacks of 2001, but the NSA apparently still regards that fateful event as the strongest argument for expanded spying authority.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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