The Terror Plots the NSA Program Stopped

And how partisanship is imperiling counter-terrorism's future.

general-keith-alexanderOn Tuesday, the intelligence community made its latest effort to defend and explain two secret surveillance programs disclosed by former defense contractor Edward Snowden. In a rare open hearing, National Security Agency (NSA) Director Keith Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee that more than 50 potential terrorist plots had been foiled since 9/11. “In the 12 years since the attacks on Sept. 11, we have lived in relative safety and security as a nation,” General Alexander said. “That security is a direct result of the intelligence community’s quiet efforts to better connect the dots and learn from the mistakes that permitted those attacks to occur on 9/11.”

Alexander, along with Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce, General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Robert Litt, and Deputy Director of the NSA Chris John Inglis explained the necessity for a domestic phone tracking system that collects the metadata of phone calls made by millions of Americans, as well as the PRISM program that collects user information from Internet companies. The group further explained how much restriction and oversight was placed on the programs, authorized by section 215 of the Patriot Act, and section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Deputy Director Inglis highlighted the limitations of the phone tracking system, insisting that “only 20 analysts at N.S.A. and their two managers, for a total of 22 people, are authorized to approve numbers that may be used to query this database.” Alexander explained that PRISM had been inaccurately portrayed by the media, and that the NSA  has no ability to directly take data from Internet providers without court orders and warrants necessitated by law. “U.S. companies are compelled to provide these records by U.S. law,” he insisted. “In practice, U.S. companies have put energy and focus into protecting their customers around the world while meeting these obligations.”

Alexander also reiterated that the NSA cannot target a U.S. citizen, including permanent residents, without prior legal clearance to do so, irrespective of where those citizens live. “The NSA can’t target email or phone calls of any U.S. person anywhere in the world without individualized court orders,” he explained.

Representative Adam B. Schiff (D-CA) asked Alexander why the FBI couldn’t get logs of calls linked to a suspicious number without maintaining a database comprised of all domestic calls. Alexander said he remained open to such a possibility, but that the agency’s primary concern is “speed in crisis.”

In order to assuage critics of the programs, some details of specific threats were revealed by Deputy FBI Director Joyce. One case involved a group of four Somalian men from San Diego who were convicted earlier this year of conspiring to help finance Somali terror group al-Shabab. They included imam Mohamed Mohamed Mohamud, two San Diego taxi drivers, 36-year-old Basaaly Saeed Moalin and 56-year-old Issa Doreh, and 37-year-old Ahmed Nasir Taalil Mohamud of Anaheim. Mohamed Mohamed Mohamud used his position at a mosque in San Diego's City Heights to collect money for the group, and Ahmed Nasir Taalil Mohamud used his financial transfer business, Shidaal Express, to route a total of $9000 to the terror group. During the trial, government lawyers played tapes of telephone calls between Moalin and Aden Hashi Ayrow, one of al-Shabaab's leaders killed in a missile strike in May 2008.

Another case involved the potential bombing of the New York Stock Exchange. Joyce revealed that, as a result of monitoring a terrorist in Yemen, they discovered Kansas City business owner Khalid Ouazzani. Ouazzani pleaded guilty in May 2010 of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, bank fraud and money laundering. After obtaining a separate warrant for Ouazzani’s communications, two additional conspirators “in the very initial stages” of planning the operation were discovered.

One of those men was Sabirhan Hasanoff, 37, who pleaded guilty last year to providing support, equipment, and technical advice to al-Qaeda associates in Yemen and elsewhere. Hasanoff was not directly charged with attempting to blow up the NYSE, but prosecutors arguing for a long prison sentence alleged he "cased" the exchange, prepared a "rudimentary" surveillance report, and sent it to Yemen terrorists operating under the aliases of "Suffian'' and "The Doctor.'' The other man, Wesam El-Hanafi, 37, also pleaded guilty to providing material support for al Qaeda. “Ouazzani had been providing information and support to this plot,” Joyce said. “The FBI disrupted and arrested these individuals.”

Alexander also referred briefly to two other plots. They included one against the New York subway system, and another against the Danish newspaper office that had published cartoon depictions of Muhammad. He also insisted that 90 percent of the 50 plots he mentioned, including at least 10 “homeland-based threats,” had been thwarted by PRISM, and that most of those efforts had been aided by a review of phone records. And while he promised to proved more details of all 50 plots to lawmakers, those details will remain classified.

When the subject of Edward Snowden's unauthorized disclosures came up, there was a general agreement that he had done irreparable harm. Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), the committee's ranking Democrat, were both angered by Snowden's disclosures. “It is at times like these where our enemies within become almost as damaging as our enemies on the outside,” said Rogers. Ruppersberger said Snowden's unauthorized disclosures "put our country and allies in danger.'' "We need to seal this crack in the system," he added. General Counsel Litt was equally concerned. “These are extremely important collection programs that protect us not only from terrorists but other  threats,” he said. “We run the risk of losing these collection capabilities. We’re not going to know for many months. If we do, there’s no doubt it will cause our national security to be affected.” FBI deputy director Joyce agreed. “These are egregious leaks,” he said. “Egregious.”

Alexander also said that Snowden's efforts have done “irreversible and significant damage to this nation” and undermined our relationship with allies. He further revealed that some of the documents Snowden took were only available on a site requiring special credentials to access, and that the NSA is still investigating how Snowden was able to procure them. Alexander added intelligence officials have "significant concerns" about the reality that 1000 other system administrators have access similar to what Snowden had, and are contractors like Snowden as well. "We do have significant concerns in this area and it is something we need to look at,'' Alexander said.

Joyce said a criminal investigation against Snowden is proceeding and that he expects "justice" to prevail. Snowden remains in hiding in Hong Kong and promises to release more information about the programs.

Alexander did his best to give the Committee some much-needed perspective. “This debate has been fueled by incomplete and inaccurate information without context,” he said. “These programs were approved by the administration, Congress and the courts. From my perspective, it’s a sound legal process. Ironically, the documents released so far show the rigorous oversight our government uses."

He then got to the heart of the controversy. "I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11.”

Alexander is well-intentioned and sensible. Yet his remarks cannot be viewed without context. While there is little doubt that sensible Americans are willing to endure a certain level of legally limited and well-monitored intrusions into their privacy, that intrusion can only be tolerated in an atmosphere of trust. The Obama administration's endless parade of scandals has undermined that trust to the point where some Americans appear to fear sensitive data in the hands of the administration more than another catastrophic terrorist attack.

President Obama exacerbated this feeling on the Charlie Rose Show Monday night, turning national security into a partisan issue. After noting the surveillance program was "transparent," he sought to distance himself from the former administration's approach. "Look, the whole point of my concern, before I was president--because some people say, 'Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before'," he said. "Now he's, you know, Dick Cheney.' Dick Cheney sometimes says, 'Yeah, you know? He took it all lock, stock, and barrel'."

The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto gets to the heart of the egregiousness of making national security an "us against them" issue. "Obama's message to Democratic partisans is that they were right to distrust the government when Cheney and George W. Bush were in the White House, but they should trust it now that he is," writes Taranto. "Great, but what about people who aren't Democratic partisans? For many of them, Obama's presence in the White House is a reason to be less trustful of government….If the NSA program is vital to the defense of the nation, it was no less so when Republicans were in the White House, and it will be no less so the next time they are. Obama would do well to remember that he is, temporarily, the president of all America."

Obama has never demonstrated that capability, and that reality cuts right to the heart of the issue. It is hard enough that Americans must contend with a vast, intrusive apparatus in order to remain protected from our genuine enemies, including those who wouldn't think twice about nuking an American city. That in and of itself takes an inordinate amount of trust in their fellow Americans who do the surveilling. It becomes almost impossible to countenance when the Commander-in-Chief makes it plain that a considerable number of his fellow Americans are untrustworthy, based on nothing more than their political ideology.

National security must transcend political ideology. President Obama’s inability--or unwillingness--to embrace such a basic understanding is profoundly troubling. Americans were largely united on the issue of national security after 9/11. We destroy such unity at our own peril.

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