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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.