Feinstein’s Phony Excuse for NSA Spying

After 9/11, the excuse for missing clues was too much data trying to sip from a fire hose but with the priority now excusing NSA spying, the metaphor is for more data you can’t find a needle in a haystack without a haystack a shift ex-FBI agent Coleen Rowley dissects.

By Coleen Rowley

More than a few bizarre aspects jumped out at me when I attended the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Oct. 2. Instead of providing needed oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in light of shocking whistleblower disclosures about National Security Agency’s secret (and arguably illegal) interpretations that led to military surveillance and massive collection of metadata about innocent American citizens, it seemed much of the hearing went in the direction of overlook instead of oversight.

For starters, the two fact witnesses, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA Director Keith Alexander, were not even asked to swear to tell the truth before they testified even though both have been discovered to have previously answered similar questions from Congress less than honestly. By weird contrast, the three professors, who testified after Clapper and Alexander and who merely provided their views of the law and technology, were asked to raise their right hands and were sworn in.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California.

Some senators also went out of their way to make the two spy agency heads feel even more comfortable with a favorite observation: “If you want to find a needle in a haystack, you first must have a haystack.” What?! Of course self-righteous builders of massive haystacks are not inclined to point out that it’s inherently easier to find a needle if it isn’t covered with hay.

There’s no scientific evidence that adding more hay (i.e. non-relevant data about innocent people) to any pre-existing database makes it easier to discern criminal actors. In fact, in the trillions of pieces of data gathered, there is only one such instance which the government has thus far been able to identify. According to the FBI, it’s the only case involving a “terrorist plot” with a “homeland nexus” where the NSA’s telephone program played a “critical” role. But making the best of that dismal statistic, on July 31, an FBI official testified to this same Senate Committee: “In order to find the needle that matched up against that number, we needed the haystack.”

Senators apparently are seizing upon this upside-down logic to justify the NSA’s massive data collection. Even worse, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who also serves as the Intelligence Committee chair, was allowed, about halfway through, to give a passionate but factually inaccurate narrative of the 9/11 attacks, insisting any curtailment of NSA data collection would risk another 9/11.

Sen. Feinstein is actually going a step further and seeking expansion of NSA surveillance on U.S. soil. In her speech, Feinstein described the desperate, pre-9/11 warning from Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet and then referred to the case of the (arrested) “terrorist who wanted to learn to fly without taking off or landing.”

She also mentioned al-Qaeda pilot Midhar’s entry into California but attributed the lack of sharing of that key information to the problem of “stove-piping” of intelligence that kept agencies from learning that al-Qaeda terrorists had entered California. Her implicit conclusion was that if more metadata had been collected prior to 9/11, the attacks could have been prevented. (Stove-piping usually refers to raw, unevaluated intelligence being sent directly to higher-ups and policymakers without being shared with analysts who can put the data in context.)

With all due respect, Sen. Feinstein has it completely wrong! In a nutshell, the main finding of the 9/11 Commission, based upon the earlier findings of the Joint Intelligence Committee’s Inquiry (JICI) which Sen. Feinstein participated in and to whom I actually addressed my “whistleblower memo” of May 21, 2002, about the FBI’s pre-9/11 failures (and also based upon the Senate Judiciary Committee’s investigation which Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, led in the spring-summer of 2002; and the lengthy Department of Justice’s Inspector General Investigation of FBI failures) was that the lack of sharing of information within agencies, between agencies and with the public was the major problem that enabled the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks to occur.

Many examples of these failures to share information (which include but are broader than mere “stove-piping”) were documented. They range from the Moussaoui case in Minnesota to the case of two (not one) terrorist suspects entering California, Al Midhar and Al Hazmi, whom the CIA had long been following, since their al-Qaeda-related meeting monitored by the CIA in Kuala Lumpur.

The CIA knew of the terrorist suspects’ entry into California but failed to notify the FBI in a timely manner, not until a few weeks before 9/11. To this day, the facts are murky as to how and why this critical information was not shared.

Moussaoui, who was later convicted of conspiring in the 9/11 plot, was arrested in Minnesota on Aug. 16, 2001, and was quickly suspected of involvement in terrorism. But FBI Headquarters supervisors failed to share this information with the proper Justice Department office to seek a FISA order to search Moussaoui’s belongings despite 60 to 70 detailed requests via telephone, email and written draft declaration.

The FBI case agent later testified at Moussaoui’s trial that this FBI/HQ failure (“stove-piping” or maybe the more accurate term would be “stonewalling”) constituted “criminal negligence.” Sens. Leahy and Grassley may also recall that the Senate Judiciary Committee (at which I testified on June 6, 2002) later uncovered the fact that the FBI’s National Security Law Unit Chief failed to read the detailed, written draft declarations submitted by Minnesota FBI agents in the Moussaoui case but simply relied upon a short verbal briefing.

A couple of years ago, former New York Times reporter Phil Shenon (who also authored The Commission, a book about the 9/11 Commission) discovered a related “terrible missed chance” involving a prior written memo addressed to then-FBI Director Louis Freeh written in April 2001 explicitly warning of upcoming terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden’s group.

The up-to-then unnoticed memo also stated that bin Laden was “heavily entwined” with the Chechen leader Ibn Al Khattab. However, several of the high-level FBI executives, to whom this April 2001 memo was addressed by name, later denied having read it.

It turned out the missed information linking Al Khattab to bin Laden was precisely the reason FBI/HQ supervisors failed to appreciate the foreign power connection (for which they later were faulted). The FBI supervisors were held at fault for failing to recognize the foreign power connection but their own supervisor claimed he had not read this April 2001 memo and therefore had not shared it with them.

There are so many more examples that were adduced and documented of the U.S. intelligence agencies already possessing critical pieces of information and intelligence, most importantly also including the NSA’s interception of conversations between al-Qaeda terrorist planners that were intercepted before 9/11 about the upcoming attacks.  But the intercepted conversations were not translated or understood until after the attacks occurred.

Obviously some senators have forgotten the general excuse given by many law enforcement and intelligence officials for why they did not share or act upon the key information they already possessed — and in some cases, did not even read — until after 9/11. That excuse was that “intelligence is like a firehose and you can’t get a sip from a firehose.” In other words, the earlier officials’ excuse for not even reading key intelligence memos, let alone properly sharing and disseminating such information or acting upon it, was that there was already too much intelligence pouring in before 9/11.

Related to the “firehose” excuse for why the existing, pre-9/11 intelligence data was not read, shared or acted upon is the claim it was impossible to make sense of so much intelligence, to prioritize the importance of the various data, and “to connect the dots” when there is so much flowing in.

Then-DCI George Tenet, whom Feinstein described as having stridently warned her intelligence committee of upcoming attacks during the summer of 2001, was himself briefed about terrorist suspect Moussaoui in Minnesota as an “Islamic fundamentalist who learns to fly” on Aug. 23 or 24, 2001, yet Tenet could not later easily explain to the 9/11 Commission why he took no action.

By the way, when such relevant intelligence flows so quickly, within a week up to the very top to the DCI responsible for all U.S. intelligence agencies, this would indicate that the problem is not “stove-piping,” but rather a failure of senior levels of government to act effectively on crucial information. It’s never even been determined if DCI Tenet warned the President or anyone else of this information that he received almost three weeks before 9/11.

So Sen. Feinstein is very wrong when she implies that the 9/11 attacks occurred as a result of not possessing the NSA’s current massive surveillance programs. U.S. intelligence officials did not read, share or act upon the key pieces of info they already had. And their excuse then was that they were getting too much data to even be able to read, or intelligently share or act upon this intelligence.

Now that the “firehose” has become more like Niagara Falls can it be any easier for them to “get a sip?” The Boston Marathon bombing and other botched cases documented in a recent ACLU report, “FBI: Unleashed and Unaccountable,” would suggest not.

Feinstein’s account is wrong and the truth is that this massive government surveillance is making things worse. Adding more hay has made it harder for analysts and agents to find the needle in the haystack. Tellingly, agents and analysts reportedly call the non-relevant data collection “white noise” or “Pizza Hut” (false) leads.

Can it be too much to ask for meaningful congressional oversight? Twelve years after 9/11, it’s time to stop using it to justify illegal and counterproductive policies.

Coleen Rowley is a retired FBI agent and former chief division counsel in Minneapolis. She’s now a dedicated peace and justice activist and board member of the Women Against Military Madness.

15 comments for “Feinstein’s Phony Excuse for NSA Spying

  1. EthanAllen1
    October 8, 2013 at 12:11

    Kudos to Coleen Rowley for lending her unquestionable credibility to denouncing the incompetent and conflicted behavior of Senator Diane Feinstein; the very fact that Feinstein occupies the chair of the Senate Intel Committee demonstrates the dysfunction of the leadership of those that placed her in that position, while being fully aware of her well-documented conflicts of interest.
    The citing of the 9/11 Commission report, in any context other than that of an expensively flawed exercise in propaganda, is disappointing at best. We need more of those who have knowledge of the corruption of our government institutions and agencies to come forward and tear away the veil of secrecy that protects the serial misuse of power; it is time for the felty to oaths of secrecy to be trumped by principled public service.
    As Usual,

  2. Aletho
    October 8, 2013 at 11:32

    Ummm, isn’t it just plain wrong to write about Moussaoui having been convicted of conspiring in the 9/11 plot without mentioning that his conviction was based on “evidence” obtained through torture?

    This is how disinformation is cemented into “reality”. We are expected to accept that the conviction is meaningful and not just a propaganda stunt.

  3. Jim-jams
    October 7, 2013 at 19:57

    Congrats on a great article Ms. Rowley. I stand in awe of your courage & dedication. It reads like all the U.S. “Acme” security agencies spent a lot more time infighting & trying to scoop each other than doing their job. I read that French security have over 40 different Arab dialect translators + 10 more who specialise in Berber Arab dialects. It would seem that U.S. security has to wait for an e-mail from one of the bought Govt. agencies in the Middle East to find out what’s happening. How very sad !

  4. Chris Herz
    October 7, 2013 at 19:02

    DiFi and her husband are personally vested in the defense/security industry. She will defend that interest to the death.

  5. LD
    October 7, 2013 at 16:51

    “Then-DCI George Tenet, whom Feinstein described as having stridently warned her intelligence committee of upcoming attacks during the summer of 2001, was himself briefed about terrorist suspect Moussaoui in Minnesota as an “Islamic fundamentalist who learns to fly” on Aug. 23 or 24, 2001, yet Tenet could not later easily explain to the 9/11 Commission why he took no action.”

    Why “no action?” Tenet had far too many conflicts of interest:

    “[Tenet’s] relationship to David Boren [long-time mentor, former US Senator, U of OK Prez, Yale Skull & Bones, in morning meeting w/on 9/11,] and the OKC area where several 9/11 suspects [Moussaoui, Atta, Al-Shehhi, Al-Shehri, Al-Ghamdi & Hanjour] had trained or visited, and where the aviation companies of Wirt D. Walker III [former Kuwaiti-based KuwAm CEO linked to BCCI scandal, 9/11 insider trading suspect,] were located. […]

    His relationship to Saudi Prince Bandar and any part he had in discouraging CIA officers from questioning Arab extremism.

    His role in the decision to disband the CIA’s OBL unit in April 1998, just two months after al Qaeda’s second fatwah against the US.

    His role in rejecting or canceling more than ten opportunities to capture OBL in the few years before 9/11, as described by [CIA officer] Michael Scheuer.

    Any foreknowledge he had of the 1998 embassy bombings, including any warnings or pre-bombing investigations of the suspects who were accused.

    His lack of actual action against terrorism, including the absence of a National Intelligence Estimate on the threat. […]

    His relationship to suspected 9/11 insider trading and Visage Corporation. (Kevin Robert Ryan, “Another Nineteen,” 2013, p. 69,84-85)

  6. LD
    October 7, 2013 at 15:41

    “The CIA knew of the terrorist suspects’ entry into California but failed to notify the FBI in a timely manner, not until a few weeks before 9/11. To this day, the facts are murky as to how and why this critical information was not shared.”

    This issue is moot, since the FBI already knew:

    “When two of the alleged 9/11 hijackers, Khalid Al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi, came to the US in January 2000, they immediately met with Omar Al-Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi government spy and an employee of a Saudi aviation company. Al-Bayoumi, who had been the subject of an FBI investigation in ’98 and ’99, became a very good friend to the two alleged hijackers, setting them up in an apartment and paying their rent. Al-Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi then moved in with long-time FBI asset, Abdussattar Shaikh, who had been working closely with the Bureau on terrorism cases since ’94. Apparently the FBI was not able to make a timely connection between its suspect Al-Bayoumi or its informant Shaikh and the two alleged 9/11 hijackers they supported for two years prior to 9/11. In 2003, the FBI gave Shaikh $100,000 and closed his contract.” (Kevin Robert Ryan, “Another Nineteen,” 2013, p. 57)

    • Sidy M. Gueye
      October 8, 2013 at 09:59

      Well said LD; they set up these naive Muslims to do their job.

    • gregorylkruse
      October 9, 2013 at 11:08

      The CIA and the FBI were walking on an egg that looked very much like to top of Dick Cheney’s head. I don’t usually believe things without evidence, but I believe the Cheney gang knew the Saudi’s were planning to execute 9/11, but thought they could never pull it off before getting arrested just in time to foil the plot but not before the plot had thickened enough to make the threat posed by the attempt believable and shocking enough to open the way for the invasion of Iraq. What they got was vastly more believable and shocking than they needed, but they are ruthless enough to use what they were given.

  7. Peggy
    October 7, 2013 at 14:57

    Senator Feinstein is a great disappointment. It makes me feel bad to think that twice I voted for her.

    On a separate issue, involving our heavily funded spy system, I agree with Dr. Robert Bowman’s statement (above) about culpability in the 9/11 horror. If anyone has ever watched the complete videos of these implosions, and still believes that planes crashing into the buildings would cause them to implode, I do have the proverbial bridge to sell them. Perhaps the wrong people are being spied on?

    • Frances in California
      October 7, 2013 at 17:20

      Peggy, you had no choice but to vote for Feinstein. Do you remember who ran against her? It would have been worse, with no support at all for Boxer in the Senate. Someone with a Titanium Pair needs to run against her next time; and drive the NSA-Spying issue into her heart like staking a vampire.

  8. incontinent reader
    October 7, 2013 at 14:09

    This is a great article, and by one who knows what she is talking about, having served the Bureau and public honorably and with distinction, and at great personal cost.

    As for Feinstein, she was totally untrustworthy re: 9/11, and has deep-sixed and avoided disclosure of important testimony and document submissions.

    Re: the issue of NSA surveillance, she was never interested in listening to NSA experts like William Binney, who were the most qualified to evaluate the design of new NSA programs and advise as to the best way to protect both national security needs while protecting privacy rights. Binney was ready to share his expertise with the Senate Intelligence Committee, but she avoided including him as a witness, just as she avoided testimony opposing John Brennan’s appointment as DCIA during his confirmation hearings. She’s basically rubber stamped the NSA and CIA and their programs, run interference, and then covered up, in order to approve and insulate them from public scrutiny and accountability. She is not a representative of her constituents or the American public generally, she has proved herself an enemy of the people and of American democracy. Furthermore, having advocated for the Administration’s war policies and voted or supported every war pursued by the Administration, she has been complicity in the process, and should be sitting in the dock of a war crimes tribunal herself.

    As for her record of ‘integrity’, or lack thereof, her husband has benefited directly from government programs (e.g.- through the granting of exclusive rights to his company CBRE to broker valuable post office properties at fire sale prices). So, there is the problem of self-dealing and conflict, or appearance of conflict of interest which should also disqualify her from public service. A good first step would be to strip her of her Committee chair. Better yet, nudge her out the door.

    • Coleen Rowley
      October 14, 2013 at 20:36

      But give her the award for pushing on without letting any nasty facts get in her way! This op-ed pretty much summarizes what she said to the Committee on October 2nd. She’s not only attempting to de-rail any substantive reform of the secret interpretations of FISA but she’s actually trying to expand the NSA’s surveillance powers. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304520704579125950862794052.html

  9. Mary Tracy
    October 7, 2013 at 12:34

    “I will begin by stating what we know to be a solid, incontrovertible, scientific fact. We know that it is strictly impossible for any building, much less steel columned buildings, to ‘pancake’ at free fall speed. Therefore, it is an incontrovertible fact that the official explanation of the collapse of the WTC buildings is false.” —Paul C. Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury under President Ronald Reagan

    “At some level of the government, at some point in time … there was an agreement not to tell the truth about what happened [on 9/11].” —John Farmer, Senior Counsel to the 9/11 Commission and Attorney General of New Jersey

    “If I had to narrow it down to one person … I think my prime suspect [in the 9/11 attacks] would be Dick Cheney.” —Dr. Robert Bowman, Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Nuclear Engineering from Caltech, former U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, and Director of Advanced Space Programs Development for the U.S. Air Force in the Ford and Carter administrations

    • Bob
      October 7, 2013 at 15:26

      Sorry but Paul Robert is no authority on physics and he starts with the false premise that the building fell at free fall speed — it did not as a simple calculation would show. John Farmer is of no interest either unless he has some unknown talent in this field. As for Dr Bowman I don’t know him and cannot say what he is basing this on. He did go to a good school. If you reference some of his research papers I can check him out for you.

      There may be some coverup, but I’ve yet to hear a credible case for it and the shear number of so called facts that just aren’t true in these conspiracy theories is mind boggling.

      • Mary Tracy
        October 7, 2013 at 21:47

        In fact, the first eight stories of Building 7 did fall at free-fall speed. See:


        As for the twin towers — they fell at a rate slightly slower than free-fall speed.

        For expert information on physics and engineering, see Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. It should be pointed out that experts do not always agree on matters of this sort. We saw this in the case of the JFK assassination where noted forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht declared the Warren Commission’s single bullet theory impossible, whereas other experts have declared it feasible.

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