Al-Shabab fighters display weapons as they conduct military exercises… (Mohamed Sheikh Nor/ASSOCIATED…)
He was a San Diego cab driver who fled Somalia as a teenager, winning asylum in the United States after he was wounded during fighting among warring tribes. Today, Basaaly Moalin, 36, is awaiting sentencing following his conviction on charges that he sent $8,500 to Somalia in support of the terrorist group al-Shabab.
Moalin’s prosecution, barely noticed when the case was in court, has suddenly come to the fore of a national debate about U.S. surveillance. Under pressure from Congress, senior intelligence officials have offered it as their primary example of the unique value of a National Security Agency program that collects tens of millions of phone records from Americans.
Officials have said that NSA surveillance tools have helped disrupt terrorist plots or identify suspects in 54 cases in the United States and overseas. In many of those cases, an agency program that targets the communication of foreigners, including e-mails, has proved critical.
But the importance of the phone logs in disrupting those plots has been less clear — and also far more controversial since it was revealed in June.
Across a dozen years of records collection, critics say, the government has offered few instances in which the massive storehouse of Americans’ records contained the first crucial lead that cracked a case — and even those, they say, could have been obtained through a less intrusive method.
“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-Colo.), a Senate Intelligence Committee member who has been pressing officials for evidence of the program’s effectiveness. “It could have just as easily gone directly to the phone companies with an individualized court order.”
U.S. officials say that the NSA’s programs often work in conjunction with one another — and that taking away a critical ability such as the “bulk collection” of phone records would undermine the agency’s effort to prevent terrorist attacks.
“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,” NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis told a Senate panel last week. “Finally, the exercise of multiple instruments of power, to include law enforcement power, ultimately completes the picture and allows you to interdict that plot.”
The NSA collects its vast digital archive of phone records under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. U.S. officials emphasize that those logs do not contain the names of customers or content — just “metadata,” which includes phone numbers and the times and dates of calls. They note that they need a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a number they wish to check in the database is linked to a foreign terrorist group.
And they say that without having all the calls in one place and easily searchable with a keystroke, finding links to suspicious numbers would be tedious and time-consuming.
Moalin’s lawyer said he is surprised that counterterrorism officials have cited his client’s case as a hallmark 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 denied that his client sent money to the terrorist group.
Needle in a haystack
It was a tip that put Moalin on the FBI’s radar in 2003. But when investigators found no link to terrorism, they closed the case. Then, in 2007, the NSA came up with a number in Somalia that it believed was linked to al-Shabab. It ran the number against its database.
Inglis said officials had no idea whether the number had ties to any number in the United States. “In order to find the needle that matched up against that number, we needed the haystack,” he said.
The NSA found that the San Diego number had had “indirect” contact with “an extremist outside the United States,” FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce told the Senate last week. The agency passed the number to the FBI, which used an administrative subpoena to identify it as Moalin’s. Then, according to court records, in late 2007, the bureau obtained a wiretap order and over the course of a year listened to Moalin’s conversations. About 2,000 calls were intercepted.
Over several months in 2008, prosecutors say, Moalin arranged for the transfer of several thousand dollars to al-Shabab. They say he sent the money to a prominent al-Shabab military leader named Aden Hashi Ayro and other associates. In May 2008, Ayro was killed by a U.S. cruise missile strike.