Would NSA surveillance have stopped 9/11 plot?

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden – From 9/11 to Abbottabad” which this article draws upon.

Story highlights

NSA and defenders say its bulk surveillance could prevent another 9/11

Peter Bergen: True story of 9/11 wasn't a failure to have enough intelligence data

He says the Bush administration failed to connect the dots, but they were plentiful

Bergen: U.S. officials often fail to properly interpret or share the data the government collects

CNN  — 

The Obama administration has framed its defense of the controversial bulk collection of all American phone records as necessary to prevent a future 9/11.

During a House Intelligence Committee hearing on June 18, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander said, “Let me start by saying that I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11.”

This closely mirrors talking points by the National Security Agency about how to defend the program.

Peter Bergen

In the talking points, NSA officials are encouraged to use “sound bites that resonate,” specifically, “I much prefer to be here today explain these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent.”

On Friday in New York, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that NSA’s bulk collection of American telephone records is lawful. He cited Alexander’s testimony and quoted him saying, “We couldn’t connect the dots because we didn’t have the dots.”

But is it really the case that the U.S. intelligence community didn’t have the dots in the lead up to 9/11? Hardly.

In fact, the intelligence community provided repeated strategic warning in the summer of 9/11 that al Qaeda was planning a large-scale attacks on American interests.

Here is a representative sampling of the CIA threat reporting that was distributed to Bush administration officials during the spring and summer of 2001:

– CIA, “Bin Ladin Planning Multiple Operations,” April 20
– CIA, “Bin Ladin Attacks May Be Imminent,” June 23
– CIA, “Planning for Bin Ladin Attacks Continues, Despite Delays,” July 2
– CIA, “Threat of Impending al Qaeda Attack to Continue Indefinitely,” August 3