Basaaly Moalin: The One "Terrorist" Caught by Section 215 Surveillance

Remember back in 2013 when the then-director of the NSA Keith Alexander claimed that Section 215 bulk telephone metadata surveillance stopped "fifty-four different terrorist-related activities"? Remember when that number was backtracked several times, until all that was left was a single Somali taxi driver who was convicted of sending some money back home? This is the story of Basaaly Moalin.

Posted on January 26, 2015 at 5:51 AM • 30 Comments

Comments

LJanuary 26, 2015 7:18 AM

TOO. FRIGGIN. LONG.

Is there a summary that doesn't require me to read a whole book about it?

The story seems interesting, but I simply do not have the time :(

SkepticalJanuary 26, 2015 8:25 AM


Remember back in 2013 when the then-director of the NSA Keith Alexander claimed that Section 215 bulk telephone metadata surveillance stopped "fifty-four different terrorist-related activities"?

No he did not.

2013-06-27 General Alexander:

Of the 54, 42 involved disruptive plots – disrupted plots. Twelve involved cases of material support to terrorism. Fifty of the 54 cases led to arrests or detentions. Our allies benefited, too. Twenty-five of these events occurred in Europe, 11 in Asia and five in Africa. Thirteen events had a homeland nexus. In 12 of those events, Section 215 contributed to our overall understanding and help to the FBI – twelve of the 13. That’s only with a business record FISA can play. In 53 out of 54 events, Section 702 data played a role, and in many of these cases, provided the initial tip that helped unravel the threat stream. A significant portion, almost half of our counterterror reporting, comes from Section 702.

Not only did he not claim that Section 215 thwarted 54 attacks, he emphasized that Section 215 only could have played any role at all in 13 of the 54 cases.

Worse, that speech is the one which The New Yorker article rather selectively quotes from.

The article is worth reading for the details about the particular case it describes, but its description of Section 215, how it fits into surveillance programs generally, and the public debate of it, is extremely cursory and poor.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 26, 2015 9:50 AM

As I've said before the "collect everything" policy is a way for the NSA and others to "time travel" as "flys on the wall".

This is confirmed by the words of a former senior CIA and FBI official Philip Mudd,

Take this woman in Paris. Who is she? How are you going to figure that out? You need historical data on everything she ever touched, to accelerate the investigation.

This 'travel back in time eye' to see "historical data on everything she ever touched" can realy only be done by a "collect everything" program.

However what he has not said is what "everything" is, at the moment we are being led to belive that it is "only meta-data" but in all probability that is not true. Meta-data only gives ambiguous contact information at some point in time, it gives neither content or meaning to the contact. Which alows the prosecutor a great deal of freedom to present 'their interpretation to the jury'.

However one point that does come out of this is that 'all the content' not just the meta-data was used in this case, and a typical prosecution trick was used of releasing a huge quantity to the deffence and judge at the last possible moment, so much so the judge actually passed comment on it. It raises the question as to if such evidence is actually real, most people can not remember what they said to their friends to weeks ago let alone thirteen years. And it's not just that they can not remember 'word for word' most people cannot remember the bulk of the conversations meaning without some kind of prompt.

Thus this case is not as indicated about "collect all contact meta-data" but actually "collect all contact meta-data and content", which I strongly suspect is actually happening with Blufdale, which the NSA would know would not be in the Ed Snowden revelations.

As Mr Mudd has said,

Now, do we want to do that in America? That’s a different question, a political question.

The problem is I suspect from Pres Obama's comments after his little chat with the UK PM David Cameron, that it's not a question that has been or will be asked.

CowardlyChickenJanuary 26, 2015 10:21 AM

It doesn't matter if surveillance "works", it is morally unjustified and that is reason enough to stop it. Do not pander to the outcome-based ends-justify-means arguments by arguing outcomes.

samJanuary 26, 2015 10:40 AM

@ Clive Robinson Re;This 'travel back in time eye' to see "historical data on everything she ever touched" can realy only be done by a "collect everything" program.

easier said than done.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 26, 2015 11:11 AM

@ Sam,

It may indead be "easier said than done" but that is true of most things in life, so not realy saying much. In general things only become easier with practice.

As for the NSA and other parts of the US trying to "collect everything" if you look back on this blog you will see a discussion on what Blufdale could store, and the result was all US phone calls in a year would be easily possible, along with a whole load of other data, certainly enough to store all of the encrypted internet traffic at that time and a large part if not all of the text of emails sent.

Again I'm surprised that people still question this, they can after all look up the required information via Google and do the calculations on the back of a napkin.

MrCJanuary 26, 2015 11:26 AM

@ CowardlyChicken:

I agree, suspicionless mass surveillance is unacceptable as a matter of principle. I think most posters here also agree with you. And almost certainly Bruce does too.
However, if this nonsense is ever going to end, people like you and me are going to need to persuade people who don't agree on that point that it nevertheless needs shut down. The argument that "mass surveillance doesn't even work" is useful for this purpose because it retains its full force even if one starts from the premise that mass surveillance is not a malum in se.

AlanSJanuary 26, 2015 1:12 PM

Alexander's 54 Attacks Thwarted was on a PowerPoint slide, (in another thread, Skeptical argues we shouldn't take this seriously). Elsewhere Alexander writes: "The other big story being missed by many in the media is how effective NSA/CSS is in accomplishing its mission. In open hearings earlier this year, we spoke to Congress about how NSA/CSS actions contributed to keeping the Nation and its allies safe from 54 different terrorist plots."

When you start poking their claims against the available data, as in this case, they are not impressive. This is a big government bureaucracy that spends most of its time saying: the details are secret but trust us, everything we do in your name and with your billions of dollars is legal and highly effective. The only reason they even bother to justify their efficacy claims is that Snowden's actions forced them into a PR exercise.

As Skeptical brings up the 702 versus 215 issue, see Do NSA's Bulk Surveillance Programs Stop Terrorism? which covers both.

NobodySpecialJanuary 26, 2015 5:02 PM

Isn't that standard procedure?
Iraq behind 9/11, Iraq WMD in 45mins is put out in non-attributable stories, off the record briefings and general statements.
It becomes a fact to the public but then in the public enquiry you can prove that it was never "officially" stated

Michael And Ingrid HerouxJanuary 26, 2015 5:18 PM

Michael And Ingrid Heroux michaelheroux1967@gmail.com

http://michaelandingridheroux.wordpress.com

https://plus.google.com/109414718225592332058/about

My family and I have been surveiled since 2008. How does any government justify surveiling a husband and wife and 3 kids for 6 years now? We don't break no laws at all. We have been swingers in the past "YEAH BABY" but how does that justify being surveiled for 6 years? We hate terrorists and we only vote NDP.

Sancho_PJanuary 26, 2015 6:06 PM


Unfortunately it’s more than just wasting freshly “printed” money.
It’s financing fanatic local tribes to fight other fanatic local tribes until they find out their common enemy is America and the western society.

Imagine that huge machine, the tremendous effort to convict someone for something nobody could seriously consider a crime,
9k divided by three over 13 years, to help their relatives to survive.

What a shame.

Probably that was the issue: It wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t enough money to buy weapons and ammunition in large scale from the friendly US supply.

No, you couldn't trace the weapons, ammunition or the money flow until we have full surveillance, worldwide. Then we might, probably, um, try to.


Shock ! Or do they produce their own stuff in Somalia, Ethiopia, … ?

tyrJanuary 26, 2015 6:25 PM


Short version

Taxpayers spent 52+ billion dollars to stop a Somali
from feeding people in a warzone with a few thousand
dollars.

This lead to a conviction on the basis of evidence
interpreted from foreign language phonecalls.

Looks like an open and shut case, a clear victory
for general Spandam and the criminal intelligence
community.

This the same thing that gets anti-tank weapons used
against civilians in countries we are not at war with.

I'd prefer an open declaration of war aginst all of
Islam to the mealy mouthed hypocrisy of the current
state of affairs.

Dirk PraetJanuary 26, 2015 6:36 PM

I refer to a post I made yesterday in the previous thread.

Frankly, the most ludicrous justification I've heard sofar still is that of DNI James "The Liar" Clapper when he said that the number of alleged agency successes in foiling terrorist plots should not be the only metric by which the success of the [phone] program is measured, but that we should also take into account the very important "peace-of-mind metric". That metric probably depends on the chair you're sitting on, but from mine I can only call it an abysmal failure as these programs have done nothing but undermine my personal piece of mind ever since I first heard about them.

@AlanS

I personally have a lot of respect for Gen. Alexander so I'm actually willing to conceed that the Powerpoint slide mentioning the 54 plots thwarted was probably more of a marketing failure than a deliberate attempt to "sex up" the account. I can also hardly imagine the preso having been made by himself but rather by someone of his staff. The NSA is totally new at the PR and marketing game and still has a lot to learn in that field.

But which doesn't mean that we should *ever* believe anything people like Alexander, Clapper, Rogers and the like are telling us. By the very nature of their jobs, they cannot tell the truth because we, the public, "cannot handle the truth" (Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men"). Add to that the wordplay they're all very good at and the impunity they can get away even with overt lies (Clapper) and you've got very good reasons to mistrust any statement they make on whatever subject.

KarlaJanuary 26, 2015 7:09 PM

Skeptical's quite frantic lately, almost too hyperactive to be one person. That is consistent with the government persona theory. But a brittle ego could also account for his midnight oil. The interesting part is his Soviet-commissar defensive instinct for disappearing up his asshole in circular ruminations about minutia, in this case regarding one (1) lie out of years of constant government deception. Skeptical is struggling to circumscribe the bounds of discourse to details, while commenters are putting this state's sickness in a broader moral/legal context. Other isolated comments made invidious distinctions between 'political' and 'technical' comments and tried to siphon the technical audience off to a different site.

This regime has to have technicians or it will grind to a halt. And not just any technicians: they need myopic and ethically helpless tools who live for attaboys (military grunts, in other words, headless arms and legs.) But no one wants to work for Stasi now. Their slogans are not working. This explains the personal and institutional panic.

d33tJanuary 26, 2015 8:33 PM

"one had been an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration"

All of these gov agencies are petri dishes for trouble (terrorism0)... how many more examples of corruption and standard human nature are necessary to demonstrate how little these agencies "work" before they get fired carte blanche? Freedom will not exist until they all cease to exist world wide ... fill in the agency names at will.

RickJanuary 26, 2015 10:14 PM

Good article, and the timing is excellent given the weekend's conversations.

The cost/benefit argument is actually not believable. At all. The anti-terrorism mania that has gripped societies worldwide since 9/11/2001 is either akin to a speculative bubble (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulip_mania) or it's a case of people always believing the big, big lies more than the little ones:

From the article, "Does the Moalin case justify putting the phone records of hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens into the hands of the federal government? “Stopping the money is a big deal,” Joel Brenner, the N.S.A.’s former inspector general, told me. Alexander called Moalin’s actions “the seed of a future terrorist attack or set of attacks.""

More from the article, "By flooding the system with false positives, big-data approaches to counterterrorism might actually make it harder to identify real terrorists before they act."

The article goes on to point out that typical threat mitigation and routine police work are likely more effective.

So how to reverse the inertia of mass surveillance that leaves mind-numbing civil liberties violations in its wake given the huge black budgets (and attempts by the political class to save face at any cost)? I'd even be willing to work for the NSA to find out! I can't think of a better place to search for needles in a haystack.


@ AlanS

Thanks for the links to make your point. They are spot-on the money.


CitizenJanuary 27, 2015 1:05 AM

Just finished watching CitizenFour. Highly recommend this movie. It shows both Clapper and Alexander answering questions under oath. Both of them are fidgety while answering questions about mass surveillance. Alexander keeps twitching his thumb while answering. Clapper is rubbing his forehead like crazy when answering Sen. Wyden. You can even hear the shock and disappointment in Sen. Wyden's voice after Clapper lies to him and the American public.

There's also a scene from the courtroom of Jewel vs NSA. The government lawyer defending the NSA basically suggests the judicial branch should "get out of the way" and not rule on the constitutionality of warrantlessly seizing and searching all data that flows over AT&T's backbone networks. It completely made my jaw drop to the floor. To make things worse, the Jewel vs NSA trial is still in the preliminary stage, over six years later!

Nick PJanuary 27, 2015 1:31 AM

@ Citizen

Funny as I watched it very recently and those exact moments stood out to me. I liked the contrast between what the people said under questioning and what the leaked documents said. Further, that the lawyer would argue the judicial branch should just go away on national security issues blew me away too. I figured they dressed the issue up somehow. Even the older judge was stunned by how bluntly he told them their opinion didn't matter.

TIDEJanuary 27, 2015 2:08 AM

From NewYorker.com:

"A central terrorist watch list is called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE. According to a classified report released by the Web site the Intercept, TIDE, which is kept by the National Counterterrorism Center, lists more than a [MILLION] people. The C.I.A., the N.S.A., and the F.B.I. can all “nominate” new individuals."


So here we have a watchlist (TIDE) with more than a million individuals on this list. Wow! I had no idea there were that many terrorists in the world. It appears the US is creating more terrorists than it removes from the world. The War on Terror is an utter failure!

65535January 27, 2015 2:46 AM

“Short version: Taxpayers spent 52+ billion dollars to stop a Somali
from feeding people in a warzone with a few thousand dollars… an open and shut case, a clear victory for general Spandam and the criminal intelligence
community.” -tyr

That is the way I interpret the cost/benefit of mass surveillance. It is grossly overpriced!

“…the same thing that gets anti-tank weapons used against civilians in countries we are not at war with.” –tyr

Yes, the IC community contributes to putting powerful weapons [and training] in the terrorist’s hands. Worse, the cost to buy back “Stinger” missiles from those who have turned against us - is paid by the average Joe.

“The cost/benefit argument is actually not believable. At all. The anti-terrorism mania that has gripped societies worldwide since 9/11/2001 is either akin to a speculative bubble…” -Rick

I agree!

I also agree that this huge expenditure of money has caused “anti-terrorism” bubble and a sub-bubble market in Zero-day viruses. The average Joe is not benefiting from this “bubble” of money sloshing around – only the few people in high positions or companies selling virus kits benefit.

“It’s financing fanatic local tribes to fight other fanatic local tribes until they find out their common enemy is America and the western society… 9k divided by three over 13 years, to help their relatives to survive. What a shame.” – Sancho_P

I concur. It’s not only a waste a destructive activity.

Some would call it the “Faustic Syndrome.” The average Joe on the sides and to the back of this run amuck “Faust Agency” always absorbs the damage.

Faust is a successful scholar who foolishly makes a pact with the devil.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faust

“It doesn't matter if surveillance "works", it is morally unjustified and that is reason enough to stop it. Do not pander to the outcome-based ends-justify-means arguments by arguing outcomes.” –CowardlyChicken

Yes, the ends do not justify the means. But, the military mindset frequently adopt the ends justify the means concept.

‘…he has not said is what "everything" is, at the moment we are being led to belive that it is "only meta-data" but in all probability that is not true. Meta-data only gives ambiguous contact information at some point in time, it gives neither content or meaning to the contact. Which alows the prosecutor a great deal of freedom to present 'their interpretation to the jury'…one point that does come out of this is that 'all the content' not just the meta-data was used in this case, and a typical prosecution trick was used of releasing a huge quantity to the deffence and judge at the last possible moment, so much so the judge actually passed comment on it [basically ignores the huge quantity of data].’ -clive

I agree. This “eleventh-hour” dump of data is a prosecutor’s trick. It subverts justice.

“…this case is not as indicated about "collect all contact meta-data" but actually "collect all contact meta-data and content", which I strongly suspect is actually happening with Blufdale [data storage compound in Bluffdale Utah USA] – Clive

I concur. I believe it’s possible for such a huge facility to collect all voice and email content for at least one year. Think of a Terabyte thumb drive the size of your little finger – and calculate how much data could be held in the Bluffdale Utah repository.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utah_Data_Center

Clive brings up several points regarding mass surveillance, the storage innocent peoples conversations and the potential of abuse of such data [say, in The Total Information Datamart or TIDE – which seems to grow larger by the day]. This is a disturbing thought. I am not going to re-hash the history of past dictators using such data to find and destroy their enemies.

I will say the mass collection of people’s phone calls, emails, and faxes using secret courts are against the Fourth Amendment and other parts of the US Constitution. These “Agencies” who are supposed to uphold the US Constitution are actually breaking it!

The US Constitution was supposed to ensure that the citizens of the USA control the military of the USA. That seems to be the opposite with the secret courts and mass surveillance capacity of said “Agencies.”

These “Agencies” have created a one-way mirror to watch the average Joe. But, the average Joe cannot do the same for the government. This is anti-constitutional and most likely illegal.

These “Agencies” don’t need any more mass data hay stacks. They need to find the needles which have grown to the size of knitting needles! And, done so within the frame work of the US Constitution [I don’t want to hear any BS boiler-plate talking points about “strictly” following the law].

Worse, these “Secret courts and Agencies” cannot be controlled by the people or congress. In fact, these “Agencies” can’t produce their actual expenses that the people pay!

Take a look at this paragraph:

“Documents released by Snowden and published by the Washington Post show that the N.S.A. accounted for $10.5 billion of the $52.6 billion “black budget,” the top-secret budget for U.S. intelligence spending, in 2013. About seventeen billion dollars of the black budget goes to counterterrorism each year, plus billions more through the unclassified budgets of the Pentagon, the State Department, and other agencies, plus a special five-billion-dollar fund proposed by Obama last year to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).” -Newyorker

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/26/whole-haystack

Is the amount $10.5 billion, $17 billion or 52.6 billion? The people [and the congress] can’t even control the “secret budget” let alone the actual operation of the NSA and all of its tentacles.

The military is now control the people [and most of the Congress] instead of the people controlling the military.

The people should be controlling the government – not the opposite. The US Constitution should be enforced [or scraped]. That is the current situation that we face.

nicknameJanuary 27, 2015 3:57 AM

@ TIDE

That sounds a dangerously lot like "Tripple DST", DST=deep sh*t trouble. There was this story about this little bird and a pile of sh*t. I can't remember it too well, but sounds familiar.

To the 4 windsJanuary 27, 2015 8:15 AM

Now this is how you deal with an intelligence agency that gets out of hand. Just take it down like the mafia it is. Of course, that's not possible in fake democracies like the USA.

vas pupJanuary 27, 2015 9:06 AM

To the 4 winds • January 27, 2015 8:15 AM. Great posting/link! The first problem with transformation is to create new Agency with folks with expertise and dignity. You could do it initially, but sooner or later their dignity jeopardized by seeing/listening (as part of job duties) of private life of those politicians (their close relatives) who claim to be judges to select them for new Agency initially. You see their skeletons in the closet and find out that they have zero moral right to accuse you of any wrongdoing of the same or minor level of infractions. That is how moral in LEAS/Intel declined.
Second, you should utilize those people who were employed by old Agency. They have expertise valuable for criminal structure (drug cartels), foreign intelligence, etc. You have to think it before, no after. In Russia (1990-2000) many former KGB/GRU officers were fired and found no place to utilize their skills. They started creation of own security structures (aka 'krisha') for businesses and basically were doing day-by-day extortion more professionally than 'mafia' of old-style criminals.

@Skeptical • January 26, 2015 8:25 AM. I am not sharing most of your views, but I respect your style of addressing/supporting your posts with facts, not emotions of fallacies.

MrC • January 26, 2015 11:26 AM. Dear MrC, you can't change something deep rooted in emotions (motivated reasoning) by applying to reason and common sense. Just recall Mr. A.Hitler's speeches - less logic more emotions. That is what crowd accepts.

Sancho_P • January 26, 2015 6:06 PM
"It’s financing fanatic local tribes to fight other fanatic local tribes until they find out their common enemy is America and the western society."
Sancho, sorry for being cynical, but may be its better they kill each other far away from your home than bring them inside and create seeds for potential terrorist cell - putting political correctness aside.


Sancho_PJanuary 27, 2015 5:43 PM


@ vas pup

Oh, not cynical, it’s exactly what I believe is reasonable: Keep out.
Ourselves and them.

But it is infuriating to supply armaments and train them, just to keep our bubble growing.
They can’t produce heavy weapons and ammunition themselves, they’d have to use axes and knives at best.
And wouldn’t find a “common enemy”.

To keep our bubble growing (and only if they want) we could use our fake money to build and maintain peace zones for refugees there, with infrastructure to live without war [1] .
Whoever wants can leave , or come in, but without weapons.

The “money” is there, but now it’s used for environmental damage and wasting precious resources.

(Btw, did you check my links here? )

[1] It could be a huge business, the same sinkhole to establish growth.

Wesley ParishJanuary 28, 2015 6:22 PM

For some completely undiscernible reason, I am finding myself recalling a book I read about 2009-2010, titled This Little Britain, by Harry Bingham. somewhere in its multitudinous pages - all 384 of them - he mentions a most peculiar phenomenon: the states on the European Continent had all derived their criminal justice system from the Roman one, where self-incrimination was valid, and which had developed self-incrimination to the point where it was treated as the only valid mention of closing a criminal case. So torture was regarded as very important. And that went foot-in-mouth, oops, sorry, hand in hand with perpetual surveillance and immense wastage of taxpayer moneys on secret police ... with the French Revolution being its inevitable consequence in France ... French culture being what it is ... :)

The British, being rather more barbaric and behind in all of that, hadn't gone the same way: instead, they had gradually developed a system of finding evidence and talking to people, and finding evidence to correlate to someone's observed movements, etc. the British system eventually came to be regarded as standard for the simple reason it worked. While the European one was eventually abandoned for the reason it didn't.

The NSA/CIA/FBI etc Axes of Evil have devoured how much public money. The evidence is coming in thick and fast that it doesn't work, that there are simpler methods of getting better results faster ....

There's something else going by the name of Little Britain, which Google, helpful as ever, sends me to. This case reminds of it, though I can't tell why ... can Skeptical help here?

vas pupJanuary 29, 2015 2:40 PM

Fresh on access control http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31042477:"We want to be able to understand this technology before big corporates and big government come to us and say everyone should get chipped - the tax authority chip, the Google or Facebook chip." Then, he says, we'll all be able to question the way the technology is implemented from a position of much greater knowledge." Good point I guess.

Wesley ParishJanuary 29, 2015 6:28 PM

Ooops, above s/"only valid mention of closing"/"only valid method of closing"

vas pupJanuary 30, 2015 9:08 AM

http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31059874 Google forced to fix privacy policy in Europe:
"It will also provide "unambiguous and comprehensive information regarding data processing, including an exhaustive list of the types of data processed by Google and the purposes for which data is processed".

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