The National Security Agency’s phone-tracking program would likely have prevented the 9/11 jihadi atrocity and should be expanded, said one of President Barack Obama’s appointees to a five-man surveillance advisory group.
“Had the program been in place more than a decade ago, it would likely have prevented 9/11,” Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote in a Dec. 27 Washington Post article.
Prior to the multiple airplane hijackings of September 11, 2001, Democrats imposed civilian-style curbs on intelligence and immigration programs. The curbs were partly lifted by President George W. Bush after the 19 Muslim hijackers used four airline planes to kill 3,000 people in New York and at the Pentagon.
The NSA’s program “has the potential to prevent the next 9/11… [and] needs to be successful only once to be invaluable,” Morell wrote about the Section 215 phone-tracking program.
The program stores basic technical information — dubbed metadata — about international cellphone calls made to or from the United States, so investigators can subsequently learn who is calling whom. The system does not record the content of international phone calls, and each set of records can only be studied with the approval of a judge.
Morell’s pro-surveillance statement clashes with much media coverage of his group’s Dec. 18 report, which played up criticism of the database as a threat to civil liberties, and played down its anti-jihadi role.
The report, whose five authors are supportive of Obama, called for the imposition of extensive civilian-style political and legal protections — including those urged by the United Nations — to curb surveillance of international phone calls, of foreign suspects and even of foreign banks and companies. They also called for the storehouse of cellphone data to be kept by cellphone companies, or at a new site outside the NSA.
Obama is expected to announce a revised policy in January, likely including new curbs on the metadata program.
Supporters of the program are rallying opposition to the report’s recommendations. “Airy reasoning, not to mention arrogant mistrust of this country’s citizens and its institutions, is the small change of daily discourse in faculty lounges,” former Attorney General Michael Mukasey wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “To find this infiltrating the Situation Room of the White House—President Obama met with the Review Group there before leaving on his Hawaiian vacation—is truly alarming,” Mukasey wrote.
However, Obama’s group implicitly endorsed the NSA’s program by not calling for its abolition, and by noting that there was no evidence that the NSA had improperly exploited the database of international calls.