- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
Top intelligence officials and leading politicians have taken turns blasting NSA leaker Edward Snowden for sabotaging U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Apparently, Al Qaeda didn’t get the memo. If Snowden’s leaks really did inflict any systemic damage on the NSA’s global surveillance apparatus, it may not have been enough to prevent the agency from intercepting key communications between Al Qaeda members about a potential plot to attack U.S. and other Western targets overseas.
A senior U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy it would be incorrect to assume that terrorist planners, even at the senior level, are so attuned to the intricacies of intelligence gathering that were exposed in press reports that they now understand how to completely secure their communications. It could also be that the terrorists let their guard down or believed, erroneously, that they might not be detected when sending a communication. Or perhaps this intercepted communication was simply a way to test which components of America’s eavesdropping network were still listening.
Either way, the mayhem allegedly sown by Snowden appears to be have been overstated. Just over two weeks ago, Robert Litt, the intelligence community’s top lawyer, said the disclosures had done "long lasting and perhaps irreversible harm" to U.S. national security. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said it was "gut-wrenching to see this happen, because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities." And Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, said that because of what Snowden did, "Those who wish us harm now know how we counter our actions. These leaks have caused significant and irreversible damage to our nation’s security."
Yet the NSA was still able to pluck out enough terrorist "chatter" to warn U.S. officials that an attack was in the offing, possibly directed against American diplomatic posts. Among the key clues was an intercepted communication reportedly from the head of Al Qaeda to its branch in Yemen ordering him to launch an attack.
The intelligence was specific and credible enough that the Obama administration took the extraordinary step of shuttering more than 20 embassies from the northwest of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula as a security precaution. Nineteen posts will remain closed until at least next Saturday, owing to what some lawmakers briefed on the potential attack are calling among the most serious threats in years that have been detected by U.S. intelligence efforts. The alert may also be seen as an attempt to make up for what some members of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service have described as an underwhelming response to the attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last year, treating that and protests at other posts as one-offs and not tied to broader risk throughout the region.
"The intent seems clear…to attack Western, not just U.S., interests," Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC’s "This Week about the latest terror threat.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle took to the Sunday talk shows to praise NSA’s efforts and cite the possibly thwarted plot as evidence that the intelligence agency is doing its job well. "If we did not have these programs we wouldn’t be able to listen in on the bad guys," said Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, on NBC’s "Meet the Press," giving credit directly to a section of law that authorizes broad sweeps of foreign communications and that was described in classified documents released by Snowden.
"It’s a very credible threat, and it’s based on intelligence," Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC’s "This Week." "The good news is that we’ve picked up intelligence. And that’s what we do. That’s what NSA does."
Characterizations of the NSA as a crack global supersleuth are at odds with the dire picture presented by administration officials and intelligence leaders in recent weeks.
"Historically every time a capability is revealed we lose our ability to track those targets," Alexander said.
So is history being proven wrong now, as the NSA zeroes in on the top leader of Al Qaeda sending an attack order to one of his lieutenants?
Much about the plot is still unknown, and it’s not clear what clues might have come from other sources of intelligence, including human spies. But the fear that revealing details about how the NSA monitors terrorists–as well as Americans–has given the nation’s enemies a playbook for evading detection seems less likely now. And in fact, the agency appears to be expanding its writ: According to a report from Reuters on Monday, the agency works closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration, providing intelligence to a special operations unit that funnels information into criminal cases.
The timing of the NSA’s success intercepting the Al Qaeda communications is fortuitous for its defenders. Lawmakers who have criticized the NSA for collecting the telephone records of Americans–a program that apparently played no role in the recent threat–praised the spy agency on Sunday for its work helping to interdict an attack.
"I think what today shows, of course, is that security is very, very important and that the agencies in charge are darned good," Sen. Charles Schumer told CBS’ "Face the Nation." "They’re able to listen in and hear what’s going on. They have disrupted many, many, many terrorist plots, and let`s hope they’re disrupting this one as well."
But Schumer pivoted to the ongoing debate about the "balance between security and liberty," and said now was still an appropriate time to "reexamine that" and set stricter rules on how the NSA spies. And he called for pushing more secrets into the light, namely through a bill that would subject court orders for NSA surveillance to more scrutiny.
Efforts to rein in the NSA may stall in the wake of an intelligence victory that was the result of exposed operations and programs. But considering that the sky didn’t fall after Snowden, the agency’s staunchest supporters will have a harder time arguing that more secrecy is what the NSA needs.