Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal ($) defending the NSA’s bulk call records database as a “vital” counterterrorism tool. While this wouldn’t make the program legal even if true, it also seems clear that the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) has relied, rather uncritically, on the government’s assertions of “necessity” to draw the strained conclusion that every American’s phone records are “relevant” to FBI counterterrorism investigations. It’s thus worth pointing out how extraordinarily weak the case for the program’s utility really is. Feinstein begins by recycling the claim that if only the NSA program had existed in 2001, the 9/11 hijackers could have been identified and halted before carrying out their catastrophic attack:
Intelligence officials knew about an al Qaeda safe house in Yemen with ties to [hijacker Khalid] al-Mihdhar as well as the safe house’s telephone number, but they had no way of knowing if anyone inside the U.S. was in contact with that phone number in Yemen. Only after 9/11 did we learn that al-Mihdhar, while living in San Diego, had called the safe house.
In congressional testimony in June, FBI Director Bob Mueller said that if intelligence officials had had the NSA’s searchable database of U.S. telephone-call records before 9/11, they would have been able to connect the number to al-Mihdhar and produce actionable intelligence on participants of the developing plot. NSA Director Keith Alexander testified before Congress in October that if the call-records program had existed before 9/11, there is a “very high” likelihood that we would have detected the impending attack that killed 3,000 Americans.
The most obvious problem with this argument is that the court order we’ve seen for phone records explicitly demands two distinct categories of records, for calls “(i) between the United States and abroad, or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” The first category might have helped identify calls to or from a known safehouse in Yemen, but the latter, much larger category rather obviously would not. This is simply an attempt to exploit the tragedy of 9/11 to deflect criticism of massive domestic surveillance that would not have been any use in preventing that attack.