President Obama spent more time defending the National Security Agency's widespread data-mining of phone calls and online communications around the world than he did talking about reforming the program in his Jan. 17 speech, which was supposed to be about the latter. Among his defenses was the long-discredited canard that this kind of collection program could have stopped the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, if only U.S. officials had been able to collect phone data on one of the hijackers.
"The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11," Obama said. "One of the 9/11 hijackers -- Khalid al-Mihdhar -- made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaeda safe-house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but it could not see that the call was coming from an individual already in the United States," Obama said.
|But U.S. intelligence agencies were aware of al-Mihdhar as early as 1999 and were tracking him. They just weren't sharing their findings with the right people.|
The same theory was offered by a federal judge in New York who found the collection program constitutional in a Dec. 27 ruling. But U.S. intelligence agencies were aware of al-Mihdhar as early as 1999 and were tracking him. They just weren't sharing their findings with the right people. This was documented more than a decade ago in the 9/11 Commission report and the joint congressional report on the attacks.
It's one of many smokescreens officials have thrown up in defense of the collection program that obscures the truth: it's illegal and may also be unnecessary. A panel appointed by Obama to review the program recommended in December that it be ended. And the federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board said in a report on Thursday that the statute upon which the program was based, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, “does not provide an adequate basis to support this program.” Translation: Even the government acknowledges it's illegal.
But Obama decided he'd rather mend it than end it. He proposed a list of changes, including requiring court approval before the NSA can access phone metadata and moving away from the government storing that information. He also put his newly installed partisan hatchet man, John Podesta, in charge of maintaining the balance between big data and privacy. After the IRS scandal, that'll certainly reassure anyone whose politics don't toe the White House-approved line.
Indeed, this is about trust -- something the administration has repeatedly squandered. The FBI was reading Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan's email correspondence with known al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in which Hasan asked for advice on whether to kill his fellow soldiers in the name of Islam for nearly a year before he killed 13 people in November 2009. And the Army ignored multiple warnings that Hasan was "a ticking time bomb," as a Senate committee report described him. The report concluded: "[The Department of Defense] possessed compelling evidence that Hasan embraced views so extreme that it should have disciplined him or discharged him from the military, but DOD failed to take action against him."
Political correctness kept that intelligence from being used to prevent the attack. If the Obama administration can't get it right when the evidence is obvious, why should it be trusted to sift through Americans' phone records on a fishing expedition?