Other papers say: NSA metadata program could have prevented 9/11

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Excerpted from Marc Thiessen's online column at washingtonpost.com:

On May 26, 2011, the House passed the 2011 Patriot Sunset Extension Act, which reauthorized Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the provision that underlies the National Security Agency's telephone metadata program. The House approved the bill by a 97-vote margin, with 196 Republicans voting in favor.

Last week, the House narrowly voted down an amendment by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that would have killed this vital intelligence program. This time, 94 House Republicans voted against the NSA program -- including 50 who had voted to authorize the exact same program two years before.

What changed?

It is not as if they did not know what they were voting for. Every member of Congress was offered a briefing in 2011 -- in person and on paper -- on the classified details of the telephone metadata program.

The NSA sought the telephone metadata program to close a gap in U.S. intelligence capabilities that made the Sept. 11 attacks possible. In the summer of 2001, the NSA intercepted calls from two of the Sept. 11 hijackers -- Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar -- to an al-Qaida safe house in the Middle East. But because the NSA did not have access to metadata on U.S. telephone calls, intelligence officials had no way of knowing that the calls had originated in San Diego. As former NSA director Mike Hayden recently noted, "If the metadata program had been in effect in the summer of 2001, al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar would likely have been rolled up, the plane that hit the Pentagon would not have had these jihadists available for the hijacking and the entire 9/11 enterprise might have been scrapped by al-Qaida."

Had the Amash amendment succeeded, it would have put the NSA right back where it was Sept. 10, 2001.

Amazingly, 40 percent of House Republicans voted to do just that.

It's understandable that Americans without access to classified briefings are confused about what the NSA is and is not doing, but members of Congress have no such excuses. They know that NSA leaker Edward Snowden's claim that he "had the authorities to wiretap anyone" is patently false. They know that unless someone in the United States is calling a terrorist, the NSA is not looking at that person's telephone business records, much less the content of his or her communications. They know the program is operated under the supervision of federal judges who have approved the NSA's acquisition of such data every 90 days since 2006.

They know all this -- yet they voted to kill the program anyway.

After Sept. 11, the House and Senate intelligence committees concluded that one of the main culprits was the "NSA's cautious approach to any collection of intelligence relating to activity in the United States." Now, after a dozen years without an attack on the homeland, they are being accused of the opposite offense.