Secret NSA program could have 'derailed' 9/11 attacks, FBI director says

FBI Director Robert Mueller, testifying on Capitol Hill Thursday, defended the controversial NSA phone-monitoring program. Lawmakers wondered why the program had to be top-secret.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday. Mueller defended the controversial NSA phone-monitoring program.

Had the National Security Agency’s secret phone-monitoring program been in place prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it probably would have prevented them.

That is the assessment of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller, who was on Capitol Hill Thursday to testify about the recent NSA revelations.

Lawmakers in turn quizzed him about how, precisely, the US government plans to balance the privacy concerns of average Americans with the ongoing quest to prevent terrorist attacks on US soil.

They wondered aloud, too, about why the program needed to be top-secret, given the likelihood that any “terrorist with half a brain” would already assume that he is being monitored.

In defending the controversial NSA program to collect and store the phone-call records of millions of Americans, Mr. Mueller – who has served as the FBI director for nearly a dozen years – says that it could have “derailed” the 9/11 attacks.

“If we had had this program, that opportunity would have been there,” he told lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee.

That’s because although one of the principal 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, was being monitored by intelligence agencies, “they lost track of him,” Mueller said.

While Mr. Mihdhar was in San Diego, he was phoning a known Al Qaeda safehouse in Yemen, he added.

Yet intelligence officials did not know who was calling the safehouse. The NSA monitoring program could have changed that, Mueller argued.

“If we had the telephone number from Yemen, we would have matched it up to that telephone number in San Diego, got further legal process, identified al-Mihdhar,” he said. “The 9/11 Commission itself indicated that investigations or interrogations of al-Mihdhar once he was identified could have yielded evidence of connections to other participants in the 9/11 plot.”

Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan was not particularly impressed with Mueller's logic on this point. “I am not persuaded that that makes it OK to collect every call,” he said, adding he worried that the scope of “relevant” phone calls that the government is allowed to monitor will expand. “ ‘Relevant’ under your interpretation means that anything and everything goes.”

Mueller further defended the recently disclosed NSA program as an effort to connect the dots in tracking terrorists using patterns of phone numbers – not to listen in on the phone calls of Americans without a court order, which would be illegal. “The particular databases of metadata has no content whatsoever. We have no authority to get content,” he said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York then asked the question debated around water coolers across America: Why did the program need to be such a big secret if terrorists already assume they’re being monitored?

“Any terrorist or would-be terrorist with half a brain in his head would assume that all electronic communications are vulnerable and may be subject to interception,” he said.

Mueller agreed that this is a point he hears frequently. “We often hear that any terrorist who has a brain would figure it out,” he noted.

That said, he took issue with the premise. “The fact of the matter is, terrorists are terrorists,” he said. “I can tell you, every time that we have a leak like this – and if you follow it up and look at the intelligence afterwards – there are persons that are out there who follow this very, very, very, very closely, and they are looking for ways around it.”

Should the NSA program be overturned, “We are going to be exceptionally vulnerable,” he warned. “All I can say is that there is a cost to be paid.”

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