Government board report refutes 9/11 argument for NSA phone records program


President Obama talks about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

"Why is this necessary?" President Obama asked rhetorically during his Friday speech about the National Security Agency program that collects domestic phone records in bulk. His answer? "The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11. One of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, made a phone call from San Diego to a known al- Qaida safehouse in Yemen."

The Mihdhar example has been trotted out repeatedly to bolster the credibility of the call records program. Then-FBI Director Robert S. Mueller invoked the example in a June House Judiciary Committee Hearing, saying "If we had had this program in place at the time, we would have been able to identify that particular telephone number in San Diego." NSA Director Keith B. Alexander made similar claims in a hearing the day before.

But a new report to be released by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), an independent, bipartisan executive branch agency established based on recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, says the details of the Mihdhar case don't match up with that narrative. The Post's Ellen Nakashima reported:

The board rejected the contention made by officials from Obama on down that the program was necessary to address a gap arising from a failure to detect an al Qaeda terrorist in the United States, Khalid al-Mihdhar, prior to the 2001 attacks. Mihdhar was in phone contact with a safehouse in Yemen, and though the NSA had intercepted the calls, it did not realize at the time that Mihdhar was calling from San Diego.

“The failure to identify Mihdhar’s presence in the United States stemmed primarily from a lack of information sharing among federal agencies, not of a lack of surveillance capabilities,” the report said, noting that in early 2000 the CIA knew Mihdhar had a visa enabling him to enter the United States but did not advise the FBI or watchlist him. “...This was a failure to connect the dots, not a failure to connect enough dots.”

The report concludes that the program was illegal and should end, saying Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act “does not provide an adequate basis to support this program.” That goes significantly further than the changes to the program President Obama announced in his speech, including moving the NSA's database of call records out of government's hands to an as-of-yet undefined third party.

PCLOB also reports that not only would the phone records program likely not have prevented 9/11, in the years since it was implemented, the board could not identify "a single instance" where the program made a "concrete difference" in a counterterrorism investigation. “Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”  This directly contradicts the statements of some administration officials, including Alexander, who claimed, in the same June hearing he cited the Mihdhar example, the 215 program helped prevent "dozens" of terrorist attacks .

The presidential task force assigned to review the NSA phone records program similarly could not find any specific times the program played a role in preventing a terrorist attack. In their final report, they wrote, "our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders."

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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