On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial written by U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. In it, the Democrat from California said the controversial surveillance programs of the NSA and other agencies in the United States intelligence community are necessary in the fight against al-Qaeda and terrorist cells around the world.
From the op-ed:
“Since it was exposed in June by leaker Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency’s call-records program has become controversial and many have questioned whether its benefits are worth the costs. My answer: The program—which collects phone numbers and the duration and times of calls, but not the content of any conversations, names or locations—is necessary and must be preserved if we are to prevent terrorist attacks.”
Except, one of the most recent updates to the ever-developing story surrounding the dirty secrets of the intelligence community is that the NSA did collect phone locations when it was testing its systems in 2010 and 2011. James R. Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, testified that the program has not been used since the tests, but opened up the possibility that it may become necessary in the future.
It was not clarified when tracking American phones would be necessary.
“Our safety depends on the ability of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies—including those at State, in the military, and at the FBI—to discover unfolding plots by tracking connections between terrorists, especially plots tied to the U.S. homeland,” Feinstein said. “This is why NSA’s call-records program is an essential component of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.”
As is the case for all the arguments in defense of the NSA surveillance programs, Senator Feinstein pointed to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001:
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.
Working in combination, the call-records database and other NSA programs have aided efforts by U.S. intelligence agencies to disrupt terrorism in the U.S. approximately a dozen times in recent years, according to the NSA. This summer, the agency disclosed that 54 terrorist events have been interrupted—including plots stopped and arrests made for support to terrorism. Thirteen events were in the U.S. homeland and nine involved U.S. persons or facilities overseas. Twenty-five were in Europe, five in Africa and 11 in Asia.
While she said the program is necessary, Feinstein said it is not without flaw.
“I believe we should increase the program’s transparency and its privacy protections,” she said. “Toward that end, the Senate Intelligence Committee will soon consider a bill to make improvements to these counterterrorism programs.”
Feinstein said these improvements include requiring court review when the call records are queried and impose limitations on how records can be obtained, stored, and used. Certainly, many people will be monitoring the progress of this legislation.
Photo Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA