San Diego connection to 9/11 cited as Obama alters NSA program

9/11 hijacker made call from San Diego to Yemen

SAN DIEGO - San Diego was in the spotlight, as President Barack Obama tried to explain why a National Security Agency surveillance program should not come to an end.

“I believe we need a new approach,” said Obama in a highly anticipated speech detail reforms to the NSA surveillance program.

The metadata contains the phone numbers of hundreds of millions of Americans, and includes information such as who those people called and for how long. That data will still be gathered but won't be stored by the government. One possibility includes phone companies storing the data. If the government wants the data, they’ll need the get court approval.

But the President stressed the importance of continuing the program and cited a 9/11 hijacker living in San Diego in 2000 as his case in point.

“One of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, made a phone call from San Diego to a known al-Qaida safehouse in Yemen. The NSA saw that call but it could not see the call was coming from an individual already in the United States,” said President Obama.

Aviation security expert Glen Winn says that if NSA surveillance had been in place then, the number could have been traced by working backward.

Supercomputers logging calls in the United States could have hit on the outbound call to Yemen and then identified the origin in San Diego.

While the president stopped short of saying a trace of the San Diego call could have prevented 9/11, he expanded on the San Diego scenario by adding this about the surveillance program: “The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists.”

Winn says that was likely a reference to the network of 9/11 hijackers and the possibility that phone surveillance could have broken up the plot. “If that location in Yemen was the place where all those phone calls were going, you could go backwards to those 20 people and know where they are and what they're up to,” said Winn.

Winn says he likes the proposed reforms as long the oversight of the program is sufficient and intelligence officials can still get essential data quickly in critical situations.

The ACLU today said it was pleased with some of the reforms, but called the continued surveillance troubling.

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