Dianne Feinstein Can't Come Up With One Good Defense of the NSA

Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Today, she takes a crack at defending the NSA's domestic phone record spying program. She can't come up with one decent justification.

Which is worrisome, considering the fact that almost no one outside of the NSA is in a better position to know the alleged benefits of the massive, unaccountable domestic spying program than Dianne Feinstein. It makes sense that even moderate US citizens might be skeptical of a top secret government agency's plan to put the metadata from every phone call into America "into a lockbox that we can search when the nation needs it," as the NSA director put it. Dianne Feinstein is a Democrat, and a high ranking member of the Intelligence committee. People concerned about civil liberties will naturally turn to her for a defense of this gruesome-sounding plan. What does she have for us?

She has, in her Wall Street Journal op-ed today, nothing but a mishmash of vagaries and downright illogical factoids. Let's take them one at a time.

1) The NSA program could have stopped 9/11. It's right there in the story's subhed: "If today's call-records program had been in place in before 9/11, the terrorist attacks likely would have been prevented." Odd, since Feinstein includes this paragraph right up front:

In the summer of 2001, the CIA's then-director, George Tenet, painted a dire picture for members of the Senate Intelligence Committee when he testified about the terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda. As Mr. Tenet later told the 9/11 Commission, "the system was blinking red" and by late July of that year, it could not "get any worse."

Huh. So... the CIA did issue dire warnings prior to 9/11, although the NSA's program was not in place at that time. This directly contradicts Feinstein's point about the necessity of the NSA's phone spying. Paging the editing department.

2) The NSA itself says the program works.

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.

These figures show that the NSA programs are a key component of our counterterrorism efforts at home and abroad because they develop intelligence for our allies about terrorists operating within their borders.

The fact that all of these "terrorist events" that have been foiled by the NSA are sourced to the NSA itself renders the entire thing rather worthless for the purposes of public debate. What this really means is, "the NSA says the NSA's work works." Is that true? Maybe, maybe not. Can we verify it? No. Does the NSA have an established record of misleading self-justifying public statements? Yes. You simply cannot use unverifiable statements from the NSA to justify the NSA's work. The government's lack of transparency is one of the key things that people are complaining about, after all.

As for the second paragraph, which amounts to "we must spy on Americans in order to help foreign governments"—good luck selling that to the American people.

3) Al Qaeda is scary. They are making "nonmetallic bombs," you see. Therefore, we must intercept every phone call in America.

Earlier this month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that in the case of the AQAP threat this summer, there were a number of phone numbers or emails "that emerged from our collection overseas that pointed to the United States." Fortunately, the NSA call-records program was used to check those leads and determined that there was no domestic aspect to the plotting.

Not only is this justification sourced to James Clapper, a man who lied to Congress under oath about NSA surveillance activities, but it attempts to justify domestic spying with a case in which there "was no domestic aspect to the plotting." And this was presumably the best example that Feinstein could come up with. Think about that.

The Gestapo's domestic surveillance program was successful in its own way. But in America, we've chosen not to go that route, supposedly. We've chosen to uphold basic principles of human rights and dignity, supposedly. Our elected officials are supposed to be representing us. Not trying to get one over on us.

[Photo: AP]