Obama Administration Uses 5-Year-Old Wire Transfer of $8,500 to Justify Phone Call Data Surveillance

Monday, August 12, 2013

Under growing pressure from the public and politicians of both parties over revelations of secret NSA spying on Americans in the U.S., and facing doubt over its vague claim that the surveillance has helped disrupt terror plots or identify suspects in 54 cases, senior intelligence officials in the Obama administration last week argued that the previously-obscure case of Basaaly Moalin offers a prime example of the value of the snooping.


Moalin, 36, is a Somali immigrant who came to the U.S. as a teenager after being wounded in ethnic fighting. Settling in San Diego, Moalin became a cabdriver, and even the government admits he is not a terrorist. Instead, in February he was convicted of charges that he sent $8,500 to Somalia to support the Islamic group al-Shabaab, which the State Department calls a terror group. For his part, Moalin argued that any money he sent was to build schools and orphanages. He is still awaiting sentencing.


Explaining the connection, NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis claimed before a Senate panel last week that “you essentially have a range of tools at your disposal—one or more of these tools might tip you to a plot, other [tools] might then give you an exposure as to what the nature of that plot is. Finally, the exercise of multiple instruments of power, to include law enforcement power, ultimately completes the picture and allows you to interdict that plot.”


Reaction to the case’s sudden new prominence, and the weight that was being placed on an $8,500 transaction involving a cabbie’s tips was not universally kind. 


Moalin’s lawyer expressed surprise that officials are citing his client’s case as a success. “The notion that this case could be used to justify a mass collection of data is mind-boggling, considering it’s $8,500 that went to Somalia,” said Joshua Dratel, who also denied that Moalin sent money to the group.


“There’s no reason why NSA needed to have its own database containing the phone records of millions of innocent Americans in order to get the information related to Moalin,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has been critical of the spying. “It could have just as easily gone directly to the phone companies with an individualized court order.”


Udall’s Senate ally Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) agreed. Referring to the Moalin case as well as to claims that the spying helped find a co-conspirator in a plot to bomb the New York City subway system, Wyden pointed out on the Senate floor that “in both cases, the government had all the information it needed to go to the phone company and get an individual court order.” Noting that the suspects in both cases were arrested “months or years after they were first identified” through the spying, Wyden argued that even if time had been short, the government could have sought an emergency order via normal means.


Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, argued 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.”

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

NSA Cites Case as Success of Phone Data-Collection Program (by Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post)

Is this $8,500 Wire Transfer Really the NSA’s Best Case for Tracking Americans’ Phone Records? (by Max Fisher, Washington Post)


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