‘Data Disarmament’

by Kevin D. Williamson

With all due respect for Representative King, I do not believe this is true:

One of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, in the lead-up to the attack, made calls to a safe house associated with al-Qaeda in Yemen. The NSA intercepted seven calls from him to Yemen, but did not have adequate information on whether or not Mihdhar was in the United States. The bulk collection program would have allowed investigators to discover that Mihdhar was calling with a domestic number.

The NSA knew that Mihdhar, already known by the CIA to be an al-Qaeda operative, was making calls to an al-Qaeda safehouse (discovered in the investigation of the African embassy bombings in 1998), and the agency could not figure out where he was calling from? The NSA doesn’t have caller-ID?

The Mihdhar case is in fact evidence against the NSA’s blanket surveillance program rather than evidence for it. We knew who he was, we knew what he was, and we knew where he was calling. The NSA already was intercepting calls to the safehouse in 1999, where it overheard Mihdhar’s being identified as an al-Qaeda operative, and Saudi intelligence identified him as such to the CIA. We knew where to be looking, and how one gets from that to a need to spy on every act of electronic communication in the country is a mystery to me.

When the intelligence agencies learned that Mihdhar had received a visa to travel to the United States, an FBI officer privy to the facts specifically requested that the information be shared with his agency, and that request was denied. We did not know that Mihdhar was in the United States because 1.) we do a terrible job securing entrance to the country and 2.) the intelligence guys did not pass on crucial information to the law-enforcement guys. There are many ways to solve the latter problem, but spying on the American public in toto is not really the most direct way to go about it.

Rather than universal domestic espionage, we might try operating a reasonably secure visa-control system and seeing if the NSA can rig up some caller-ID for its overseas operations, assuming we take seriously the preposterous claim that the NSA cannot discover which numbers are calling a particular phone under its observation. 

I do not think that many of us would much object to the various spooks’ tracking telephone numbers that are used to call al-Qaeda safehouses in Yemen. We do not have to track every telephone number to do that. 

We see this sort of thing all the time: Agencies fail to make use of the resources we give them, not because the resources are inadequate but because the agencies are inadequate, managed by politicians and the mediocrities they surround themselves with. Their response to their own failure is to seek extraordinary powers and resources, on the theory that they will use these effectively where they failed to effectively use the resources they had previously enjoyed. The fact is that a good entry-control system not only would have prevented 9/11 but would also prevent the great majority of Islamist terror plots directed at domestic U.S. targets. And, unlike drone assassinations or a domestic surveillance state, you kind of want a good entry-control program in general, for a great many reasons ranging from immigration to crime to terrorism. If our law-enforcement and intelligence agencies performed at a C-minus level when it comes to their most basic jobs, we would not even need to have their conversation about extraordinary measures. 

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