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Aug 09 2013

The best that you can do

NSA cites case as success of phone data-collection program

By Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post

Published: August 8

He was a San Diego cab driver who fled Somalia as a teenager, winning asylum in the United States after he was wounded during fighting among warring tribes. Today, Basaaly Moalin, 36, is awaiting sentencing following his conviction on charges that he sent $8,500 to Somalia in support of the terrorist group al-Shabab.

Moalin’s prosecution, barely noticed when the case was in court, has suddenly come to the fore of a national debate about U.S. surveillance. Under pressure from Congress, senior intelligence officials have offered it as their primary example of the unique value of a National Security Agency program that collects tens of millions of phone records from Americans.

Officials have said that NSA surveillance tools have helped disrupt terrorist plots or identify suspects in 54 cases in the United States and overseas. In many of those cases, an agency program that targets the communication of foreigners, including e-mails, has proved critical.



(I)n 2007, the NSA came up with a number in Somalia that it believed was linked to al-Shabab. It ran the number against its database.



The NSA found that the San Diego number had had “indirect” contact with “an extremist outside the United States,” FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce told the Senate last week. The agency passed the number to the FBI, which used an administrative subpoena to identify it as Moalin’s. Then, according to court records, in late 2007, the bureau obtained a wiretap order and over the course of a year listened to Moalin’s conversations. About 2,000 calls were intercepted.



In 2009, an FBI field intelligence group assessed that Moalin’s support for al-Shabab was not ideological. Rather, according to an FBI document provided to his defense team, Moalin probably sent money to an al-Shabab leader out of “tribal affiliation” and to “promote his own status” with tribal elders.

In 2010, three years after the bureau opened an investigation, it arrested Moalin as he was about to board a flight to Somalia to visit his wife and children.



U.S. officials argue that Moalin’s number probably would not have surfaced – at least not in a timely fashion – had it not been for the database.



Such arguments do not persuade critics, even when the government asserts that the database helped break another case involving a co-conspirator in a plot to bomb the New York City subway system. “In both cases,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said recently on the Senate floor, “the government had all the information it needed to go to the phone company and get an individual court order.”

If time was of the essence, he said, a different court order or administrative subpoena would allow for an emergency request for the records. Wyden noted that both Moalin and the subway plot co-conspirator were arrested “months or years after they were first identified” by mining the phone logs.

The bottom line, said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a House Intelligence Committee member, is that even if the program is “only occasionally successful, there’s still no justification that I can see for obtaining that amount of data in the first place.”

1 comment

  1. ek hornbeck

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