Former NSA Lawer Stewart Baker: FISA Minimization Policies Are To Blame For 9/11 Attacks
from the next-up:-opinion-blogs-to-blame-for-9/11-attacks! dept
Stewart Baker, former DHS official and NSA counsel, has plenty of blame to spread around for the 9/11 attacks. None of it seems to lay at the feet of the terrorists who performed the attacks, however. He’s entertained various theories over the past few months as he’s defended the actions of the NSA, TSA and various other government agencies.
Most egregiously, Baker claimed civil liberties activists were to blame for the 9/11 attacks because their concern over warrantless wiretap programs somehow made the FISA court so defensive it wouldn’t let the FBI pursue terrorists it knew were currently in the country.
Baker expounds on this further in his post criticizing the NSA-targeting Leahy-Sensenbrenner bill, making the argument that FISA minimization policies prevented the FBI from tracking down terrorists located in the US.
The Leahy-Sensenbrenner USA FREEDOM Act puts the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FIS) court in charge of shaping, overseeing, and enforcing minimization guidelines in connection with section 215, pen/trap orders, and section 702, largely taking the Attorney General out of the process of writing minimization guidelines. I’m appalled, because the FIS court has taken control of minimization before, with disastrous consequences; it built a “wall” between intelligence and law enforcement without any legal basis for doing so, and enforced the wall so aggressively that the FBI couldn’t use its best counterterrorism assets to track down the hijackers in late August and early September 2001. In a very real sense, it was the FIS court’s legal error combined with a self-righteous use of its contempt power that thwarted the country’s last, best chance to stop the attacks.
Baker is one of the only people out there who have taken the FISA court to task for being “too restrictive.” According to Baker, this is because its reaction to early “rubber stamp” criticism was to swing the other way and utilize its contempt power to limit the reach of intelligence agencies.
It’s hard to argue with the rubber stamp perception, considering the court has approved nearly every request that has crossed its desk. The court may argue that several requests are sent back for major changes before finally being approved, but the end result is still the same: large-scale collections of untargeted, domestic data are still being OK’ed. Not only that, but expansions of programs have been granted even as FISA judges detail large amounts of agency wrongdoing within those same opinions.
But going back to Baker’s opening statement, the FISA court didn’t erect a minimization “wall” that prevented data from being shared between agencies. And even if it had, the breakdown that led to a domestically-located terrorist eluding multiple US agencies would not have been affected by looser minimization standards.
The ACLU’s Michael German thoroughly dissected the intelligence failures preceding the 9/11 attacks using widely-available information from the 9/11 Commission’s report. Baker’s supposedly hamstrung agencies are nowhere to be found.
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.”
Here we see multiple agencies broadly sharing information on a known terrorist. Not only that, but the intercepted phone calls were to a known terrorist group, meaning the call data on those would be subject to very little, if any, minimization procedures and could be tipped to the FBI without stripping identifying info. At this point, three agencies knew about the calls to an al Qaeda safehouse.
What happened next had nothing to do with minimization procedures. The agencies involved knew Mihdhar was communicating with terrorist entities outside the US, so the governor was off, so to speak. Unfortunately, the CIA decided to do nothing with the additional information it had.
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 Counterterrorism 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.
So, we have an agency failing to put a potentially dangerous person on a watch list and we have the FBI itself, the agency Baker claims was cut out of the loop by FISA court meddling, failing to do anything with the information it had pulled from CIA cables — information Baker is apparently claiming it had no access to.
Then we have the NSA itself collecting even more data and doing nothing with it.
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.
Even if the NSA was prevented by FISA court interference from tipping these calls to the FBI (which is doubtful, considering they were contacts with a terrorist entity), it still had the info in its possession and didn’t act on it.
There are many levels of failure at play here, but protecting the data of American citizens isn’t one of them. Baker’s interest in placing the blame for the 9/11 attacks on the NSA’s critics has gone past unseemly. At this point, he sounds like a one-man echo chamber. The entities he despises the most (EFF, ACLU, etc.) are somehow the villains in every scenario, whether it’s a national tragedy or the TSA’s invasive pre-flight security theater, even when every argument he makes fails to produce any evidence towards his conclusions.