Debunking Government’s Justification for Mass Surveillance

Preface: The Bush and Obama administrations have claimed for more than a decade that spying on Americans was justified by 9/11.

Senator Diane Feinstein – head of the Senate Intelligence Committee – is now trotting out the same old tired justification.

However – as demonstrated below – that claim is totally false.

No Stopped Terrorist Plots

TechDirt notes:

Feinstein goes on to make … claims that have already been debunked:

Working in combination, the call-records database and other NSA programs have aided efforts by U.S. intelligence agencies to disrupt terrorism in the U.S. approximately a dozen times in recent years, according to the NSA. This summer, the agency disclosed that 54 terrorist events have been interrupted—including plots stopped and arrests made for support to terrorism. Thirteen events were in the U.S. homeland and nine involved U.S. persons or facilities overseas. Twenty-five were in Europe, five in Africa and 11 in Asia.

[The NSA chief himself admits the numbers are wildly inflated, and there were only “one or two” terrorist plots foiled.  The NSA’s deputy director says that – at the most – one (1) plot might have been disrupted by the bulk phone records collection alone.]

Note the all important “and other NSA programs” language here. Also the use of “terrorist events” not plots. And, remember, those “thirteen events… in the U.S. homeland,” have since been whittled down to only one that actually relied on the call records program that she’s defending — and that wasn’t a terrorist plot but a cab driver in San Diego sending some cash to a Somali group judged to be a terrorist organization.

Specifically, the cab driver and 3 other men raised a total of $8,500 and sent it to Somalia.

While the group the money was sent to was, in fact, designated as a terrorist organization in 2008 by the U.S., the FBI itself admits that the cab driver’s donation was more in the nature of a political – or even tribal – affiliation, rather than a terrorist one.

Yochai Benkler explained at the Guardian:

This single successful prosecution, under a vague criminal statute, which stopped a few thousand dollars from reaching one side in a local conflict in the Horn of Africa, is the sole success story for the NSA bulk domestic surveillance program.

The Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez writes that Feinstein’s argument:

Is simply an attempt to exploit the tragedy of 9/11 to deflect criticism of massive domestic surveillance that would not have been any use in preventing that attack.”

So there’s not a single terrorist attack proven to have been thwarted by the NSA. Instead, the entire Orwellian surveillance program is being justified by one San Diego cabbie sending his loose change ($8,500 divided by 4 is $2,125) to the other side of the world as a political/tribal contribution?

The Government Actually DID Spy On the Bad Guys Before 9/11

ProPublica notes:

In defending the NSA’s sweeping collection of Americans’ phone call records, Obama administration officials have repeatedly pointed out how it could have helped thwart the 9/11 attacks: If only the surveillance program been in place before Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. authorities would have been able to identify one of the future hijackers who was living in San Diego [named Khalid al Mihdhar].

Last weekend, former Vice President Dick Cheney invoked the same argument.

***

Indeed, the Obama administration’s invocation of the Mihdhar case echoes a nearly identical argument made by the Bush administration eight years ago when it defended the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program.

The reality is different.

Initially, an FBI informant hosted and rented a room to Mihdhar and another 9/11 hijacker in 2000.

Investigators for the Congressional Joint Inquiry discovered that an FBI informant had hosted and even rented a room to two hijackers in 2000 and that, when the Inquiry sought to interview the informant, the FBI refused outright, and then hid him in an unknown location, and that a high-level FBI official stated these blocking maneuvers were undertaken under orders from the White House.

As the New York Times notes:

Senator Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who is a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused the White House on Tuesday of covering up evidence ….The accusation stems from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s refusal to allow investigators for a Congressional inquiry and the independent Sept. 11 commission to interview an informant, Abdussattar Shaikh, who had been the landlord in San Diego of two Sept. 11 hijackers.

So mass surveillance of Americans isn’t necessary, when the FBI informant should have apprehended the hijackers.

Moreover, the NSA actually did intercept Mihdhar’s phone calls before 9/11.

We reported in 2008:

The U.S. government heard the 9/11 plans from the hijackers’ own mouth. Most of what we wrote about involved the NSA and other intelligence services tapping top Al Qaeda operatives’ phone calls outside the U.S.

However, as leading NSA expert James Bamford – the Washington Investigative Producer for ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings for almost a decade, winner of a number of journalism awards for coverage national security issues, whose articles have appeared in dozens of publications, including cover stories for the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and the only author to write any books (he wrote 3) on the NSA – reports, the NSA was also tapping the hijackers’ phone calls inside the U.S.

Specifically, hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi lived in San Diego, California, for 2 years before 9/11. Numerous phone calls between al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi in San Diego and a high-level Al Qaeda operations base in Yemen were made in those 2 years.

The NSA had been tapping and eavesdropping on all calls made from that Yemen phone for years. So NSA recorded all of these phone calls.

Indeed, the CIA knew as far back as 1999 that al-Mihdhar was coming to the U.S. Specifically, in 1999, CIA operatives tailing al-Mihdhar in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, obtained a copy of his passport. It contained visas for both Malaysia and the U.S., so they knew it was likely he would go from Kuala Lumpur to America.

We asked top NSA whistleblower William Binney – a highly-credible 32-year NSA veteran with the title of senior technical director, who headed the agency’s digital data gathering program (featured in a New York Times documentary, and the source for much of what we know about NSA spying) – what he thought of the government’s claim that mass surveillance of Americans would have caught Mihdhar and prevented 9/11.

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