NSA chief ’s rev­e­la­tion adds to Obama blun­ders Data col­lec­tion’s suc­cess mi­nus­cule

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY SHAUN WATER­MAN

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cred­i­bil­ity on in­tel­li­gence suf­fered another blow Wed­nes­day as the chief of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency ad­mit­ted that of­fi­cials put out num­bers that vastly over­stated the coun­tert­er­ror­ism suc­cesses of the gov­ern­ment’s war­rant­less bulk col­lec­tion of all Amer­i­cans’ phone records.

Pressed by the Demo­cratic chair­man of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee at an over­sight hear­ing, Gen. Keith B. Alexan­der ad­mit­ted that the num­ber of ter­ror­ist plots foiled by the NSA’s huge data­base of ev­ery phone call made in or to Amer­ica was only one or per­haps two — far smaller than the 54 orig­i­nally claimed by the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Gen. Alexan­der and other in­tel­li­gence chiefs have pleaded with law­mak­ers not to shut down the bulk col­lec­tion of U.S. phone records de­spite grow­ing un­ease about gov­ern­ment over­reach in the pro­gram, which was re­vealed in doc­u­ments leaked by for­mer NSA con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den.

“There is no ev­i­dence that [bulk] phone records col­lec­tion helped to thwart dozens or even sev­eral ter­ror­ist plots,” Sen. Pa­trick J. Leahy, Vermont Demo­crat and com­mit­tee chair­man, told Gen. Alexan­der of the 54 cases that ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials — in­clud­ing the gen­eral him­self — have cited as the fruit of the NSA’s do­mes­tic snoop­ing.

“Th­ese weren’t all plots and they weren’t all foiled,” he said.

Mr. Leahy and Rep. F. James Sensen­bren­ner Jr., Wis­con­sin Repub­li­can and au­thor of the USA Pa­triot Act, which the gov­ern­ment says al­lows bulk data col­lec­tion, are work­ing on a bill to roll back that au­thor­ity.

In a sum­mary they floated to col­leagues Wed­nes­day, the men said they would end bulk col­lec­tion and re­quire the NSA to show that the data it is seek­ing are rel­e­vant to an au­tho­rized in­ves­ti­ga­tion and in­volve a for­eign agent.

The two law­mak­ers also pro­posed a spe­cial ad­vo­cacy of­fice with ap­pel­late pow­ers to be part of the pro­ceed­ings in the se­cret For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court, and re­quir­ing the court to re­lease se­cret opin­ions that lay out ma­jor in­ter­pre­ta­tions of law.

Mr. Leahy, who has been a chief critic of the NSA, asked Gen. Alexan­der to ad­mit that only 13 of the 54 cases had any con­nec­tion at all to the U.S., “Would you agree with that, yes or no?”

“Yes,” Gen. Alexan­der replied in a de­par­ture from nor­mal prac­tice.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials giv­ing tes­ti­mony to Congress, even when asked to con­fine them­selves to a sim­ple yes or no, rarely do.

In re­sponse to a fol­low-up ques­tion, Gen. Alexan­der also ac­knowl­edged that only one or per­haps two of even those 13 cases had been foiled with help from the NSA’s vast phone records data­base. The data­base con­tains so-called meta­data — the num­bers di­al­ing and di­aled, time and du­ra­tion of call — for ev­ery phone call made in or to the U.S.

Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence James R. Clap­per de­nied that the num­ber of plots foiled should be the sole met­ric by which the suc­cess of the pro­gram is mea­sured. “I think there’s another met­ric here that’s very im­por­tant. … I would call it the ‘peace of mind’ met­ric.”

He ex­plained that the agency also could use the data­base to sat­isfy it­self that global ter­ror­ists abroad did not have con­nec­tions or as­so­ci­ates in the U.S., and that at­tack­ers like those at the Bos­ton Marathon were not part of a wider in­ter­na­tional plot.

Gen. Alexan­der’s dra­matic con­ces­sion is the lat­est in a se­ries of re­cent, or re­cently re­vealed, in­tel­li­gence mis­state­ments that have em­bar­rassed the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Su­san E. Rice, then the U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, said in Septem­ber 2012 that the at­tack on a U.S. diplo­matic post in Libya had grown spon­ta­neously out of a demon­stra­tion against a U.S.-made anti-Is­lam video, de­spite in­tel­li­gence re­ports that the at­tack­ers were heav­ily armed ter­ror­ists. That line was re­peated by other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials.

Mr. Clap­per told Congress un­der oath this year that U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies did not col­lect any kind of data about mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, be­fore Mr. Snow­den’s stolen doc­u­ments re­vealed the meta­data pro­gram.

In rul­ings de­clas­si­fied by the ad­min­is­tra­tion last month, the se­cret For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court chas­tised the NSA for re­peat­edly, if in­ad­ver­tently, mis­rep­re­sent­ing how it was fol­low­ing court-im­posed re­stric­tions on the use of the meta­data in 2009.

The Wash­ing­ton Times re­ported last month that dur­ing his 2012 re-elec­tion cam­paign, Pres­i­dent Obama was be­ing briefed that al Qaeda had metas­ta­sized, while he was telling vot­ers it had been dec­i­mated.

The news was re­vealed on the day the ad­min­is­tra­tion filed court pa­pers op­pos­ing a re­quest from com­mu­ni­ca­tions providers that they be al­lowed to tell the pub­lic how many and what types of gov­ern­ment or­ders they re­ceived.

The au­thor­ity used by the NSA to com­pel phone com­pa­nies to hand over do­mes­tic phone meta­data, con­ferred by Sec­tion 215 of the USA Pa­triot Act, also gags the com­pa­nies from even dis­clos­ing that they have re­ceived an or­der, and the Jus­tice Depart­ment fil­ing Wed­nes­day cast into sharp relief of­fi­cials’ claims at the hear­ing that the ad­min­is­tra­tion was aim­ing to be as trans­par­ent as pos­si­ble.

Gen. Alexan­der told the hear­ing that his agency was “al­ready, I think, in agree­ment on re­leas­ing the to­tal num­ber of or­ders or other [le­gal] process is­sued un­der var­i­ous NSA se­cu­rity au­thor­i­ties … and the to­tal num­ber of tar­gets af­fected by those or­ders.”

But in its court fil­ing Wed­nes­day, the Jus­tice Depart­ment ar­gued that al­low­ing the com­pa­nies to re­lease de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about the se­cret or­ders “would be in­valu­able to our ad­ver­saries.”

The ten­sion be­tween Gen. Alexan­der’s state­ments at the hear­ing and the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s court fil­ing the same day high­lights the steep hill the gen­eral and his col­leagues have to climb to per­suade many law­mak­ers to pre­serve the do­mes­tic phone records mass-col­lec­tion pro­gram.

The “lack of in­for­ma­tion” about the scale of the pro­gram “frankly, scares peo­ple and causes dis­trust. It makes them dis­trust our gov­ern­ment,” said Sen. Al Franken, Min­nesota Demo­crat.

A num­ber of se­na­tors made it clear at the hear­ing that they sup­ported the do­mes­tic data gath­er­ing.

Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, South Carolina Repub­li­can, baldly stated that the meta­data pro­gram would have thwarted the Sept. 11 plot be­cause at least one of the 19 hi­jack­ers was in tele­phone con­tact with a known ter­ror­ist fa­cil­ity in the Mid­dle East.

The pro­gram is de­signed so that U.S. calls to or from for­eign num­bers as­so­ci­ated with ter­ror­ist sus­pects can be found af­ter the fact — and their con­tacts with other U.S. tele­phone num­bers be­fore and since can be logged.

“I am here to tell the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” the se­na­tor de­claimed, that if the meta­data pro­gram had been in place, “the 19 hi­jack­ers who were here in the coun­try, most of them in il­le­gal sta­tus, talk­ing to peo­ple abroad, we would have known what they were up to.”


Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency Di­rec­tor Gen. Keith B. Alexan­der ad­mit­ted that the num­ber of ter­ror­ist plots foiled by the NSA’s huge data­base of ev­ery phone call made in or to Amer­ica was only one or per­haps two — far smaller than the 54 orig­i­nally claimed by the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

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