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In Defense Of Controversial Surveillance Program, Obama Points To San Diego

When President Barack Obama announced big changes Friday to the National Security Agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone data, he didn't necessarily throw the program under the bus.

He defended the program, specifically pointing to San Diego for his justification.

"The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11," he said, speaking from the Justice Department. "One of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, made a phone call from San Diego to a known al-Qaida safehouse in Yemen."

Khalid al-Mihdhar (left) and Nawaf al-Hazmi flew an American Airlines jet into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Before that, they lived in San Diego.

Above: Khalid al-Mihdhar (left) and Nawaf al-Hazmi flew an American Airlines jet into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Before that, they lived in San Diego.

Hijackers Lived 'Very Openly' In San Diego

The decision to send hijackers Khalid Al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi to San Diego was supposedly made in Karachi, Pakistan. That’s where one of the 9/11 architects, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said he found a San Diego phone book at a local flea market. After thumbing through it, he claimed he sent the two 20-something men to the city.

“The hijackers lived very openly here in San Diego," San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said.

Gore was the FBI special agent in charge of the local bureau when the attacks occurred.

“They were not hiding," he said. "They were going to school. They were listed in the phone book. They had insurance for their car. They had drivers’ licenses.”

Continue reading: "Questions Linger Over San Diego 9/11 Hijackers’ Ties To Saudi Government"

Al-Mihdhar, along with Nawaf al-Hazmi, were the hijackers manning the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on that September day. Both men were living here, making calls to the Middle East right under the NSA's nose.

AUDIO: Retracing The Story: 9/11 Hijackers In San Diego

The NSA had spotted the call, Obama said, but couldn't tell that it was made from within the United States. Hence the mass collection of Americans' phone calls began, which, in a pinch, allows the government to map and track the communication of specific persons.

The collection of phone metadata was one of the secret intelligence programs that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden shed light on beginning last summer when he leaked classified documents to national news organizations. This led to a public uproar over the intelligence agency's practices, and later prompted Obama to establish a review board to examine the NSA's programs.

The changes announced Friday are a result of the review board's recommendations.

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