NSA Now Claiming 'Terrorist Chatter' Leak By Unnamed Govt Officials 'More Damaging' Than All Of Snowden's Combined

from the best-laid-plans-of-spooks-and-spin-doctors... dept

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the negative impact a leak related to “terrorist chatter” has had on the NSA’s ability to intercept terrorist communications. What’s strange about the article is the disconnect between what the agency is claiming and its original reaction during the first emergence of that information.

Back in August, several embassies were shut down by the US government, which cited the interception of “terrorist chatter” discussing possible attacks. The “leak,” which originally came from unnamed government officials, was portrayed as a justification of its intrusive surveillance programs (even though it really wasn’t related at all). “Look, we’re catching bad guys!” Lots of self-congratulatory backpatting followed.

To outside observers focused on Snowden’s leaks, the intelligence community’s decision to show its hand looked very much like a calculated move designed to shift focus away from the ongoing “unauthorized disclosures” and onto the incautiously triumphant agency. Now, nearly two months down the road, intelligence officials are claiming this leak has been more damaging to its surveillance efforts than all of Snowden’s combined.

Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.

“The switches weren’t turned off, but there has been a real decrease in quality” of communications, said one United States official, who like others quoted spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence programs.

Why the change in heart? Well, when officials first leaked the details, the government asked that certain names involved be withheld. The New York Times complied. McClatchy News, however, did not. When it broke the story, it mentioned two names.

An official who’d been briefed on the matter in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, told McClatchy that the embassy closings and travel advisory were the result of an intercepted communication between Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri in which Zawahiri gave “clear orders” to al-Wuhaysi, who was recently named al Qaida’s general manager, to carry out an attack.

The question now becomes: if the leak was so damaging, why did the government leak it? Sure, it told the New York Times that revealing the names would “jeopardize its operations.” But it would seem that simply revealing it had listened in on a “conference call” would do the same thing, especially after issuing orders to close down embassies it thought might be affected. (This group of nineteen embassies was reopened after it was determined the plot centered on Yemen.) It wouldn’t take the terrorists involved too long to figure out what recent group discussions centered around threats to embassies and, from there, narrow down which forms of communication were used. McClatchy’s decision to name names seems incidental to the whole collection process.

When the fingers are pointed by the intelligence community, a great many of them need to be aimed at officials privy to the details. This was originally portrayed as intelligence agencies doing the job they keep claiming they’re doing: detecting and reacting to terrorist plots. Two months down the road, the leak/spin attempt is being referred to as “incredibly damaging.” It just doesn’t add up.

It seems that others are finding the Times story (and officials’ claims) unbelievable as well. McClatchy’s pushback on the NYT’s narrative involves some strongly-worded statements that question the government’s credibility and its delayed reaction.

Asher, in a statement, said that in the nearly two months since McClatchy had published its story, no U.S. agency has contacted the newspaper company about the article or has asked any questions about the origins of the story.

“Multiple sources inside and outside of the Yemeni government confirmed our reporting and not one of them told us not to publish the facts,” Asher said. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert and the author of “The Last Refuge,” a book on al Qaida in Yemen, said that he had been told before the McClatchy report that Zawahiri and Wuhayshi were the two men who’d been monitored and that many people in Yemen knew the details of the communication. Johnsen had made a similar statement to McClatchy in early August.

“The idea that the identities of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri are responsible for the difficulties the U.S. is having in tracking al Qaida and AQAP is laughable,” Johnsen said Monday, referring to the Yemen al Qaida affiliate by its initials. “The U.S. publicly closed 19 embassies, the participation of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri was well known in Yemen. I was told about it prior to McClatchy publishing it. And once the leaks start from the U.S. government they can be hard to stop or to control.”

That last sentence is particularly damaging. The anonymous officials quoted in the several articles dealing with the “terrorist chatter” were pushing a narrative of their own — one that portrayed the US intelligence network as heroes combating terrorism using its extensive surveillance toolkit. The faux-leakage seemed to be ordained by the administration itself, which issued no statements at the time decrying the spilling of confidential information. What looked at the time to be a blatant attempt to spin the story in the NSA’s favor now looks undeniably like a diversionary tactic that backfired badly, possibly compromising a valuable intercept.

But even this new concern may be nothing but spin, or an attempt to lull NSA targets into a false sense of security. As McClatchy notes, much of the communications loss occurred well before the August leaks.

Johnsen and other observers of Yemen said they doubted that the reports had anything to do with a drop-off in terrorists “chatter.” They said the decline in al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s use of electronic communication pre-dated the August embassy plot, with some tying it to increased pressure on the group–including a sustained uptick in the frequency of drone strikes on Al Qaida targets dating back to the end of 2011…

Yemeni journalists also have noticed that once-regular email statements from the group have dried up since mid-2012 and attributed the silence to a Yemeni military offensive against AQAP-affiliated militants in the southern Abyan province.

There’s no indication the administration is mounting an investigation into these “leaks,” which would indicate there was some approval at high levels to allow this narrative to be deployed. If the NSA has truly lost a valuable intercept, it really has no one to blame but the White House.. and itself.

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Comments on “NSA Now Claiming 'Terrorist Chatter' Leak By Unnamed Govt Officials 'More Damaging' Than All Of Snowden's Combined”

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out_of_the_blue says:

?It?s One Big Lie, Not One Word Of It Is True.?

If you can’t trust the Bin Laden death story, what CAN you trust?


Don’t trust ANYTHING, especially not from the NY Times. At best, it’s passing on what the NSA wants out, AND this is actually just a diversion, kind of gets across the notion of connecting “leak” with “bad for the nation”, which is probably enough. It’s definitely got nothing about indictments, trial, and JAIL for the ones we already know are criminals. This IS useless “chatter”!

So, I glanced at your text, then quickly recalled a real reporter railing about an even bigger lie. — What’s your take on that, Mike? Is Seymour Hersh right that the whole Bin Laden raid was phony?

Anonymous Coward says:

We have not been able to believe the NSA on any of those things Snowden revealed. They as well as the rest of government would say they don’t do that suddenly to have within the next couple of days to have that revealed as a lie. Now suddenly we’re to trust them with what they say now.

Sorry it don’t work that way. There are consequences to destroying trust and this is one of the fall outs of that. When you lie you destroy your credibility.

Which brings in the next point. Where is the seeking of espionage charges against the official that leaked this supposedly damaging info? While it is always aimed at whistle blowers, when you get one the intelligence community claims hurts them, suddenly that doesn’t work like it does for whistle blowers? Maybe it isn’t as bad as claimed.

My last point is, if leaking that certain individuals who were targets of communications taps was damaging, how can not revealing that they successfully found a method to dodge being tapped not be damaging too? You have rewarded them with validation they are doing the right things. So none of this totals up to be more than another smoke and mirror in an attempt to control damage. Shhhh, we don’t talk about that sort of thing.

Ninja (profile) says:

This article begs the question: are the drone strikes being really effective or did the terrorists just go underground to further conceal themselves using communication methods that either can’t be intercepted by the surveillance dragnet or that are properly encrypted from the prying eyes? If so, what’s the purpose of continuing the mass surveillance? And also, if the surveillance dragnet drove them further underground wouldn’t it be the intelligence folks own fault exactly because it went too far?

Further questioning may be presented on the existence of such plots and even if Osama is really dead (for the truly cynical).

Also there’s the question whether the terrorists have already succeeded in destroying the democratic principles they hate in the West and thus succeeded in their endeavor…

Anonymous Coward says:

Isn’t the government a very large organization? Isn’t is possible that one part, when asked, thinks one way. Then a month down the road, after having time to analyze the situation, another part thinks a different way? When saying that they are switching their views are we sure that the same people are being asked the same questions?

President at Techdirt, “That article is a hit”
The article bombs.
Month goes by.
Manager at Techdirt, “That article sucks”

Anonymous Coward says:

When they closed the embassies at the time I was already thinking something similar.

1) It was a blatant attempt to shut people up about the NSA’s illegal spying and civil rights violations by acting like we’re all in danger and drastic measures need to be taken to protect us all.

2) If there was a real threat, just shutting down embassies will tell the terrorists all they need to know to prevent farther spying.

The terrorists were so secretive about 9/11 that even Bin Laden’s #2 guy didn’t know about the plot until after it happened. Most of the 19 hijackers also didn’t know about the plot until a few hours before the attack, when the head of their group told them about it. So it really seems very unlikely that this plot was well known among the terrorists, which would make finding the source of the leak even easier.

Heck, the government’s overreaction even showed that the terrorists could cause economic harm by just TALKING about fake imminent terrorist attack plans that they know the NSA will overhear. That would both cause economic harm, and confirm to the terrorists how the US is spying on them.

Anonymous Coward says:

just because they are unnamed, are we to assume they are unknown as well? if so, how come, given all the spying, the surveillance, the listening and reading the NSA has been doing for years, up until the episode we have now, that is?

also, if that is the case, when will charges be laid at these people and lifted from Snowden? when will these people lose their jobs, be classed as and called terrorists, be arrested, then named and shamed and face trial? given the severity of the charges laid on Snowden, if his ‘releases’ are no where near so damaging, i expect these poor suckers to be publicly tried and punished. the security services seem to be very fond of making their ‘triumphs’ seem much greater than they really are, so i expect the whole 9 yards to be thrown at them

Anonymous Coward says:


Nobody commenting on this site seems to have anything for OOTB except for vitriol and hostility. Why does anybody even bother commenting about his comments? To me, it’s all very tiresome.

He never has anything favorable to say about anything so I don’t understand why he bothers with Techdirt at all; but the same goes for all of his haters. It doesn’t matter what any of you say, he doesn’t care. He has even responded that he enjoys your response. So just flag him and ignore him.

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