Blog — Senate

October 03, 2013

Sen. Feinstein and 9/11 Revisionism

By Daniel Schuman

Dianne Feinstein official photoAt yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on FISA, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) made a curious claim. She argued that 9/11 could have been prevented by the government’s new surveillance programs, but could not have been prevented in their absence. That is a dangerous narrative.

Here is what the 9/11 Commission found:

"Earlier in this report we detailed various missed opportunities to thwart the 9/11 plot. Information was not shared, sometimes inadvertently or because of legal misunderstandings. Analysis was not pooled. Effective operations were not launched. Often the handoffs of information were lost across the divide separating the foreign and domestic agencies of government." (p. 353)

Prior to 9/11, the government actively looked at Osama bin Laden out of concern his organization would launch a terrorist attack. The CIA Director at the time, George Tenet, described the threat this way: “the system was blinking red.”

Even with all its resources, the government did not put the pieces together. Why not? According to the report, “We believe the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.”

Reasonable people may disagree regarding domestic surveillance.  But there is no reason to believe our current domestic surveillance system would have prevented 9/11. Just as significantly, other approaches may be more effective at addressing future threats while addressing constitutional and prudential concerns.

The Commission got it right when it declared:

"The burden of proof for retaining a particular government power should be on the executive, to explain (a) that the power actually materially enhances security and (B) that there is adequate supervision of the executive’s use of the powers to ensure protection of civil liberties.  If power is granted, there must be adequate guidelines and oversight to properly confine its use."

If the disclosures over the last months have taught us anything, it is that the government has failed to meet its burden of proof.  At today’s hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) advocated for a new approach that goes beyond current reform efforts.“In my view, it is time for a change. Additional transparency and oversight are important parts of that change, but I believe we must do more.” We agree. 

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