Obama’s 9/11 rationale
By: Reid J. Epstein
January 17, 2014 01:45 PM EST
As a 2008 candidate, Barack Obama regularly castigated then-President George W. Bush for what he called excessive surveillance programs. Joe Biden, now Obama’s vice president, criticized former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s GOP presidential platform at the time as little more than “a noun, a verb and 9/11.”
Yet 9/11 played a starring role in Obama’s justification of the signals intelligence program during his Friday speech about National Security Agency reforms. The president invoked 9/11 eight times Friday, saying the attacks on New York and the Pentagon justify and demand maintaining a robust surveillance apparatus to keep the nation and its allies safe.
It’s the latest in Obama’s evolution from a critic of those who used 9/11 to justify national security procedures to a leader who uses the attacks to defend his administration’s surveillance policies.
Now, Obama said, his daily intelligence briefings deliver a fresh evidence that programs like the one that collects and monitors telephone metadata are essential to American security interests.
“As a president who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats,” Obama said.
On Friday, Obama acknowledged his pre-White House stance critical of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.
“We saw, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our government engaged in enhanced interrogation techniques that contradicted our values,” Obama said Friday. “As a senator, I was critical of several practices, such as warrantless wiretaps. And all too often new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate.”
Obama acknowledged his own personal shift since the 2008 campaign and said that Bush, in concert with federal courts, ended “some of the worst excesses” before the end of his presidency.
“Some of the worst excesses that emerged after 9/11 were curbed by the time I took office,” Obama said. “But a variety of factors have continued to complicate America’s efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties.”
And yet Obama said the nation’s intelligence officials work under the premise that they cannot afford any mistakes, for they will be blamed for any attack on the homeland.
“Laboring in obscurity, often unable to discuss their work even with family and friends, they know that if another 9/11 or massive cyber-attack occurs, they will be asked, by Congress and the media, why they failed to connect the dots,” Obama said. “What sustains those who work at NSA through all these pressures is the knowledge that their professionalism and dedication play a central role in the defense of our nation.”
In his defense of the metadata collection program, Obama cited a 9/11 hijacker who called from San Diego to “a known al-Qaeda safehouse in Yemen.”
The NSA noticed the call, Obama said, but couldn’t tell that the hijacker, Khalid al-Mihdhar, was already in the United States.
The program is an essential tool to provide quick access to those types of records, he added, as he relayed the possibility of a catastrophic bomb in an American city.
“The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible,” Obama said. “This capability could also prove valuable in a crisis. For example, if a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence.”
And Obama tied the surveillance issue to the drone policy speech he delivered last May “in our effort to get off the open ended war-footing that we have maintained since 9/11.”
But Obama said that while he hoped to engage the nation in a debate on drone policy, he did not anticipate former NSA contractor Edward Snowden sparking a broader global discussion on the American intelligence community’s gathering of electronic data.
“What I did not know at the time is that within weeks of my speech,” Obama said, “an avalanche of unauthorized disclosures would spark controversies at home and abroad that have continued to this day.”