NSA program could have stopped 9/11, says Obama advisor

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

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.

The cellphone capability is so valuable, Morell wrote in the Post, that “I would expand the Section 215 program to include all telephone metadata (the program covers only a subset of the total calls made) as well as e-mail metadata… to better protect the United States,” he said.

The NSA metadata program was unveiled by Edward Snowdon, who brushed past the NSA’s weak internal security procedures to gather and release vast quantities of information about one of the nation’s most secret and effective spy agencies. So far no NSA official has been fired for allowing the security breach.

The NSA program has prompted much protest by small-government libertarians, and also by Republicans angry after the discovery that Obama’s IRS suppressed Tea Party groups during the 2012 election. The program is also being criticized by disillusioned progressives and journalists eager to distance themselves from Obama after his de facto endorsement of President George Bush’s post-9/11 homeland security policies, and amid his failed efforts to build a coast-to-coast government healthcare network, complete with integrated databases of people’s health records.

The criticism of the program has been boosted by Obama’s feeble defense of the NSA.

“What I’ve said in the past continues to be the case, which is that the NSA, in executing this program, believed, based on experiences from 9/11, that it was important for us to be able to track if there was a phone number of a known terrorist outside of the United States calling into the United States,” the commander in chief said during a Dec. 20 press conference.

“It’s important to note that in all the reviews of this program that have been done, in fact, there have not been actual instances where it’s been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data,” he added.

“But what is also clear is from the public debate, people are concerned about the prospect, the possibility of abuse,” said Obama, who has rarely crossed his left-wing supporters, and recently dismissed the IRS scandal as a media myth.

Follow Neil on Twitter