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Could data collection have stopped 9/11? White House thinks so

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But critics of the National Security Agency's program to track Americans' phone data strenuously dispute the idea that it could have prevented the terrorist attacks.

WASHINGTON — Many of President Obama's closest advisors have embraced a controversial assessment of one of the National Security Agency's major data collection programs — the belief that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks could have been prevented had government then possessed the sort of vast trove of Americans' telephone records it holds now.

Critics of the NSA program, and some scholars of America's deadliest terrorist attack, strenuously dispute the view that the collection of phone data would necessarily have made a difference or that the possibility justifies the program now. The presidential task force that reviewed surveillance operations concluded last month that the program "was not essential" to preventing terrorist attacks.

But as the president finalizes plans for a speech on Friday announcing his proposals to change intelligence operations and oversight, the widespread agreement at the most senior levels of the White House about the program's value appears to be driving policy. As a result, the administration seems likely to modify, but not stop, the gathering of billions of phone call logs.

In recent White House meetings, Obama has accepted the "9/11" justification, aides say, expressing the belief that domestic phone records might have helped authorities identify some of the skyjackers who later crashed passenger jets in New York, the Washington area and Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people. More.

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