Dianne Feinstein Is Simply Wrong In Claiming NSA Dragnet Would Have Been Helpful In Stopping 9/11

from the don't-let-her-get-away-with-it dept

We already wrote about Dianne Feinstein’s highly questionable claim that we need to continue to allow the NSA to collect data on every single phone call in the US because it might have helped stop 9/11. As we noted, that claim didn’t make that much sense, since it’s based on the idea that a terrorist named Khalid al-Mihdhar made a phone call from the US to a known phone number for a safe house in Yemen, and the intelligence community missed it. As we noted, none of that explains why a purely domestic collection of phone call data makes sense, since this was an international call and since the recipient number was already known, it would have been possible to just track that number, rather than all numbers.

The ACLU’s Michael German goes through a complete and total debunking of Feinstein’s claims based on the actual history of what happened. After reading this, pretty much the only conclusion you can be left with is that Senator Dianne Feinstein is either totally misinformed over publicly known information about what the intelligence community had done (which would be quite incredible given her position as the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee) or she is flat out lying to protect her friends in the intelligence community.

There are a few problems with using Mihdhar as the poster child for new domestic spying programs, however. The intelligence agencies, which normally benefit from being able to keep secret any facts that might undermine their arguments, seem to have forgotten that the 9/11 Commission, the Justice Department Inspector General and the intelligence committees in Congress published in detail what the government knew about Mihdhar before the attacks. It turns out that the NSA was intercepting calls to the al Qaeda safe house in Yemen as early as 1999, and both the FBI and CIA knew Mihdhar was an al Qaeda operative long before the 9/11 attacks.

The safe house was discovered during the FBI’s investigation into the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and had been monitored by the NSA and CIA ever since. The inspector general’s report couldn’t be clearer that the intercepts were being broadly shared:

“The NSA’s reporting about these communications was sent, among other places, to FBI Headquarters, the FBI’s Washington and New York Field Offices, and the CIA’s CTC. At the FBI, this information appeared in the daily threat update to the Director on January 4, 2000.”

Intercepted communications from this location allowed the CIA to follow Mihdhar to an al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000. Though they lost him in Thailand, as Mueller suggested, the CIA knew he had a visa to enter the United States and that his travel companion and fellow hijacker, Nawaf al Hazmi, had a plane ticket to fly to Los Angeles.

The CIA, however, failed to place Mihdhar on a watch list or “notify the FBI when it learned Mihdhar possessed a valid U.S. visa,” according to the 9/11 Commission report. The inspector general’s report revealed that five FBI officials assigned to the CIA Counterterrrorism Center viewed CIA cables indicating Mihdhar had a U.S. visa. A week after the Kuala Lumpur meeting, Mihdhar and Hazmi flew into Los Angeles International Airport and entered the United States without a problem. After their entrance, the NSA would intercept at least six calls from the al Qaida safe house in Yemen to the United States, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In other words, the intelligence community clearly had everything it needed prior to 9/11. It just failed to use it. That has nothing to do with the dragnet data collection that Feinstein is claiming would have somehow caught Mihdhar.

Frankly, the other problem here is the Wall Street Journal allowing Feinstein to post that op-ed when it clearly includes things that are untruthful. I recognize that there’s a difference between an oped and reporting, but a newspaper should still challenge an oped author when they write things that are easily proved false. Instead, the WSJ let Feinstein publish her clearly bogus article in support of the dragnet, despite the many problems with it. As German notes, these efforts to lie to the American public actually undermine Feinstein’s case:

These repeated efforts to mislead Congress and the American people only make the case more strongly that the government’s surveillance authorities need to be sharply curbed with strong legislation that ends the bulk collection programs, protects Americans’ private communications and adds more transparency and public accountability to these activities. Americans have the right to truthful information about their government’s intelligence activities, and the current oversight system, which depends on whistleblowers willing to risk jail, certainly isn’t working.

If they can’t support their program with the truth, it seems pretty clear that there’s no reason to support the surveillance program at all.

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Comments on “Dianne Feinstein Is Simply Wrong In Claiming NSA Dragnet Would Have Been Helpful In Stopping 9/11”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yep you can’t be fired as a senator until another election is held. You don’t even have to show up and cast a single vote in the senate, there’s been sick senators who didn’t cast a vote for over two and a half years.

It’s even perfectly legal to get elected to congress, and then make sure that every single vote you cast will screw over the people you represent the most. Even better, you still get a great pension for life for being a congressman!

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

you can’t be fired as a senator until another election is held

That is not true, strictly speaking. The Senate can kick out other senators. Here’s a handy list of senators that have been expelled: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_senators_expelled_or_censured#Expelled_senators

you still get a great pension for life for being a congressman

This is also not necessarily true. The pension a senator gets depends on how long the senator has served. If you’re in for a year and get kicked out, you’re not getting much.

Anonymous Coward says:

the only thing that would have stopped the 9/11 tragedy was if the Twin Towers had already been abandoned and dismantled!

none of the measures that keep being touted by Feinstein, Alexander, Rogers and whoever else you like did anything then, they wont do anything now or in the future. those that want to pull off this sort of destructive episode will take whatever measures needed to remain free. as terrible as it seems, i would rather take the chance of something like this happening and keep my rights to privacy and freedom. giving all those rights up, means the terrorists have won already. the governments(s) are doing the terrorists work for them without them having to do anything. how stupid is that?
we saw how countries like East Germany fared with that attitude. it may take a long while, but eventually, the people will rebel against the harsh treatment and lack of freedom meted out by those that fear everything except themselves and the immediate surroundings. please dont let the USA or anywhere else that is supposedly a Democratic Country go down that path!

mcinsand (profile) says:


Let?s see if I understand her argument correctly. Our officials were not capable of seeing what was happening when equipped with a focused, select data set, but having that data buried in an irrelevant mountain of gatherings will help them. Yeah, right.

As for the author?s assertion that the two choices are ignorance or dishonesty, I disagree. There is a third option. Ignorance is not having the information but having the intelligence for comprehension, while dishonesty is having information and comprehension without the integrity to present truthfully. There is a third possibility of stupidity, where the information is there, but not the intellectual capacity to understand it.

What has constantly baffled me is how the right has constantly demonized the ACLU. As an actual conservative (rather than what the right claims to be), I see the ACLU and groups like them a key to helping oppose government overreach

Anonymous Coward says:

Ok fair is fair if they get to monitor us maybe every day of their lives I mean any and every public servant while holding a public office should be recorded via live feed (except bathroom breaks and showers ) including all text messages emails hand written letters drs appointments meetings dinner parties i mean everything we can call it the “honesty firewall” every single minute has to be accounted for 0 discrepancies or they get fined and or removed from office

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Not stupid

Feinstein isn’t a stupid person. She’s a person with an agenda that is at odds with the American people, and she apparently believes that her constituents are idiots, but that’s far different than being stupid.

I think we enter a dangerous territory when we start dismissing these people as idiots. It leads to underestimating them.

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