The NSA Leaks Put Our 'Methods' At Risk, But Bragging About Monitoring Al Qaeda Emails Doesn't?

from the double-standards dept

Throughout the whole Snowden leaks, one thing we keep hearing from defenders of the NSA’s surveillance programs is how this is revealing “sources and methods” that we use to do surveillance on our [classified] enemies. Of course, what he actually revealed was not so much the sources and methods used to spy on enemies of the US, but the method by which the government seems to spy on everyone by scooping up a ton of data that most people expected to be private. But… contrast that to the story we’ve heard over the past few days concerning the terror alert, and the US pulling people out of embassies and ramping up the fear about an impending attack. Even though no such attack has happened as yet, the NY Times has already revealed details of the email intercepts by the US:

The Obama administration’s decision last week to close nearly two dozen diplomatic missions and issue a worldwide travel alert resulted from intercepted electronic communications in which the head of Al Qaeda in Pakistan ordered the leader of its affiliate in Yemen, the terrorist organization’s most lethal branch, to carry out an attack as early as this past Sunday, according to American officials.

The intercepted conversations last week between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of the global terrorist group, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, revealed one of the most serious plots against American and other Western interests since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, American intelligence officials and lawmakers have said.

So… revealing that we collect data on everyone somehow turns Snowden into a traitor, while having officials in the government tell the NY Times that we directly intercepted emails between Al Qaeda’s top leaders is somehow perfectly fine? How does that work?

I don’t think anyone thinks it’s a bad thing that the feds are spying on Al Qaeda’s leaders and their communications. That’s to be totally expected. But if you’re comparing the two “leaks”, it’s not difficult to see how the leak revealing exactly which kinds of communications we can see from the folks planning an attack seems a lot more revealing on the “national security” front than anything that Snowden revealed. What he focused on was how those same tools are being used on millions of totally innocent Americans.

And, of course, the skepticism level is high about all of this, because some people feel that these warning and closures are just part of the game to try to justify NSA surveillance. Indeed, Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member (and massive NSA apologist) Senator Saxby Chambliss has been using these closures to claim that this is evidence we shouldn’t push back on NSA spying:

They are what lead us to have the – or allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter that I referred to. If we did not have these programs, then we simply wouldn’t be able to listen in on the bad guys.

Of course, that’s hogwash. The programs people are complaining about go way way beyond that. They’re not objecting to the ability to “listen in on the bad guys.” Glenn Greenwald hit back quickly, explaining why this is completely bogus:

“Nobody has ever questioned or disputed that the U.S. government, like all governments around the world, ought to be eavesdropping and monitoring the conversations of people who pose an actual threat to the United States in terms of plotting terrorist attacks,” Greenwald says. Pointing to the recent revelations by leaker Edward Snowden that he has reported on, Greenwald explains, “Here we are in the midst of one of the most intense debates and sustained debates that we’ve had in a very long time in this country over the dangers of excess surveillance, and suddenly, an administration that has spent two years claiming that it has decimated al-Qaeda decides that there is this massive threat that involves the closing of embassies and consulates around the world. … The controversy is over the fact that they are sweeping up billions and billions of emails and telephone calls every single day from people around the world and in the United States who have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism.”

I don’t deny that there may be an actual threat and that Al Qaeda and various affiliates really are (or were) planning something major. But just because a group that we already know is trying to launch attacks is planning to launch an attack is, in no way, a justification for collecting the information of everyone.

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Comments on “The NSA Leaks Put Our 'Methods' At Risk, But Bragging About Monitoring Al Qaeda Emails Doesn't?”

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Anonymous Howard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s 9/11 all over again, mark my word (that sounds clic?d).

Just when people start to discuss curbing the police state’s powers, a convenient terrorist strike happens, causing millions of americans to forget their privacy and cry for vengeance, ceding the government more power.

Yeah, expect another high profile terrorist attack with controversial details that gets covered up quicker than you can blink with shitty “official explanation”. Investigation committees get blocked, skeptics branded “conspiracy theorists”, US marches on another Holy Crusade against the Big Bad Terrorists in some obscure mid-east country with deprecated weaponry. After the invasion, a conveniently pro-US government installed, everyone happy!

Headbhang says:

Re: Re:

Funny how Snowden is a traitor by compromising security by letting the terrorists know and adapt about the NSA activities…
Surely revealing specificially which kind of communications between which people they’re snooping on won’t prompt terrorists to take any measures at all. Bloody morons.

Unless it’s all fake propaganda, in which case… Lying scumbags.

Anonymous Coward says:

Al Qaeda can now cause economic harm without even attacking us!

Just ‘pretend’ in phony messages they send to each other in ways they know the NSA will pick up that they’re going to attack something somewhere, sometime in the near future, with something… vague…

Then the US will rush to close a bunch of foreign embassies if it’s abroad, or shut down an entire US city!

Or of course, there’s always the possibility that these claims are a bunch of garbage, and just the US making up some incredibly vague and dangerous threat, and using it to scare people and get them to love what the NSA is doing.

ss (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I know how most appreciate facts over conjecture, myself included, but if I were to imagine myself in a similar position this would be one one of the first things I’d do given the current situation. Namely, to wide eyed protege: “Watch this.” to appropriately indoctrinated mujahadeen: “Send this email.”. Then I’d sit back and beat one of my women for allowing a 12 year old daughter to read a book that was not the Qur’an.

Email recipient: “lol, wut?” (in whatever teh appropriate native language equivalent would be)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I really don’t like clicking on blind links (tinyurl,, etc.). They can be dangerous.

Quite so. All URL shorteners (to date) have done little, if anything, to control the massive amounts of abuse conducted via their services. There is a substantial pile of evidence which suggests that some of them ARE the abusers, and a roughly equal pile of evidence that suggests that some of them have been so thoroughly gamed by abusers that they might as well be.

Best practice for security providers is to immediately (and permanently) blacklist all URL shorteners the moment you’re aware of their existence. Best practice for users is to avoid them entirely: they serve no useful purpose (all sensible software copes gracefully with full URLs) but they serve many evil ones.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Re: new leak

I’m waiting for the government approved “leak” that proves Snowden is a pedophile who raped babies, killed little old grandmas and danced on their graves…oh and that Obama and Bush fought the War on Terror singlehanded, wearing the American Flag as a cape and using the Constitution as a shield against gunfire (to explain why there’s now so many holes in the Amendments, it was the terrorists goddammit!)

Anonymous Coward says:

We need to stop applying logic to this. It’s really just driving us crazy.

What the core issue that the NSA is complaining about is that they want their own secret police force; and now they have it.

It’s not as much fun when the secret police force isn’t so much a secret anymore. They got mud all over their Tonka truck and now they’re crying about it.

There is no logic or reasonable mindset that can be followed. They want to wave their bureaucratic fists in the air and hope the audience shuts up and stops whispering mean things about them. Eventually they’re going to realize that screaming and rambling on stage only makes the whispering worse.

Anonymous Coward says:

i hope i am wrong, but i wouldn’t put it past those who are trying their damnedest to justify and to keep the spying going, to not just fake this attack, but actually orchestrate and execute one. the lengths some seem to be prepared to go to be able to condemn Snowden and all others that have shown the people what a bunch of completely untrustworthy people are in government so as to stay in their jobs, is nothing short of amazing.
the release of the information is to try to disarm the public and get them to stop blaming the government for what they are doing and have them focus on the ‘terrorist activities’ instead. i haven’t actually read anything yet, but i am a little surprised that a full blooded ‘i told you that if it weren’t for the spying we wouldn’t have known anything about the attack’ bullshit speech hasn’t been released!

GH Crosby (profile) says:

NSA's wakeup call about privacy on the Internet

I think the NSA revelations are a much-needed wake-up call for people using the Internet. We’ve been too cavalier about it for too long. We willingly gave up our privacy. OK, we didn’t know about NSA & PRISM. But we need to take action now to protect ourselves.
Get your stuff off the cloud where it’s a sitting duck for NSA, not to mention Google, Microsoft, Apple, Dropbox or whoever is hosting it for you. They’re ALL looking at your stuff, either to find reasons to get you or find ways to get your money.
Still want to get to your files over the Internet? Then put them in something like a Cloudlocker (, which stays in your house where no one can get to it without a warrant issued on probable cause you’re a bad guy. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Hopefully, we’ll see more products like this to help ordinary people protect what little of our privacy we have left.

Anonymous Coward says:

I doubt Al Qaeda is dumb enough to communicate their attack plans through email. They’ve known the US is monitoring electronic communications, even before the NSA leaks.

Things just aren’t adding up over the embassy shutdowns. It’s been known the Osama Bin Ladin used to send messages by human mules, just to avoid digital surveillance, once he found out spies were tapping his satellite phone.

Like I said, things just aren’t adding up with this story. It feels like we’re back to the Bush era, with Terror warning levels being elevated up and down constantly.

Nick (profile) says:

Hah, I’d noticed that in the article when I read it too. So, I hardly know anything in particular I can do differently to not be monitored by the NSA (I have nothing to hide, but plenty to be uncomfortable about), but then they just come out and proudly proclaim they intercepted a very SPECIFIC email exchange? This close to the actual “attack”? If the attack is “imminent”, then doesn’t it mean they just need to fire another email to the guys in Yemen saying “holy shit guys, the US government just told the NY times that they are reading these emails. Go to plan B!” and suddenly we have NO idea what is going on.

But Snowden put us all in danger. Uh huh.

GEMont (profile) says:

Spy VS Spy

Its called Damage Control.

Its simply the O’bumma Admin’s ‘best’ attempt to prove that the total 24/7 surveillance of everything that everyone says or writes, anywhere on earth, has succeeded in catching a bad guy before his bad guy plans could be realized. It’ll likely take them another week to come up with a good “bad-guy plan” scenario, like nuking Disney World, if they don’t just invoke “Classified” instead.

In other words, its a large crock o’crap spread thickly in hopes of fooling all the people one more time into believing that The Fed is the Good Guy with naught more on its mind than your well being. Sadly, it will work far better than it should. It always does. Collectively we prefer the pretty lie over the ugly truth every time.

The surveillance of everyone on earth has but one real purpose; to steal business plans, inventions and ideas, in order to make it easier for American Corporations to make more money and to eliminate their competition. Period.

All the rest is politalk.

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