Spinning Surveillance via Discredited NSA Talking Points

Barack Obama on Charlie Rose

Barack Obama on Charlie Rose

Appearing on the Charlie Rose  show last night (6/17/13), Barack Obama said the NSA’s secret domestic surveillance program is “transparent” because all requests are reviewed by a secret court:  “It is transparent. That’s why we set up the FISA court,” Obama told Rose. 

A system in which a secret program is approved behind closed doors via classified rulings would be better described as  “opaque,” though Rose failed to challenge Obama on the point.

The host did ask Obama a question predicated on the FISA court’s well-deserved reputation for being a rubber stamp for the NSA: “But has FISA court turned down any request?”  But Rose failed to challenge the president’s disingenuous answer:  “First of all Charlie, the number of requests are surprisingly small….” In fact, throughout its history the FISA court have turned down just 11 requests out of more than 33,000.

Rose also failed to push back when the president cited an NSA success story that had been discredited for days.  As Obama told Rose:

The one thing people should understand about all these programs though is they have disrupted plots, not just here in the United States but overseas as well. And, you know, you’ve got a guy like Najibullah Zazi, who was driving cross-country trying to blow up a New York subway system….

Obama never directly says that the Zazi plot, which was successfully prosecuted, was stopped by one of the controversial NSA programs; instead, he becomes vague on the relationship between the Zazi plot and the NSA: 

Now, we might have caught him some other way. We might have disrupted it because a New York cop saw he was suspicious. Maybe he turned out to be incompetent and the bomb didn’t go off. But at the margins we are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe like that through these programs.

The Zazi plot had become the premiere pro-NSA talking point, widely repeated in the media after it was cited by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D.-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R.-Mich.) According to the story,  Afghan-born U.S. resident Najibullah Zazi’s plot to detonate suicide bombs in the New York City subway system was found out when the NSA discovered he had contacted a known Al-Qaeda bomb-maker in Pakistan.

But the talking point should have washed out when Associated Press writers Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo (6/11/13) found that the Al-Qaeda email in Pakistan, the key to the arrest and subsequent prosecution, had been discovered by British intelligence on a captured computer.  Thus, even if PRISM was used to track that email after that, obtaining traditional warrants to monitor the address would have been a cinch, as the AP writers reported: “To get a warrant, the law requires that the government show that the target is a suspected member of a terrorist group or foreign government, something that had been well established at that point in the Zazi case.”

Was Obama’s strange and vague language about Zazi due to the fact that he was citing a washed-out talking point? And what might it say about the depth of NSA’s record of success stories that,  even after its prime exhibit is debunked, the White House is still retailing the story, the second time around with muddled language?

After Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted he hadn’t exactly told the truth in March congressional testimony about domestic surveillance, but rather had furnished what he called the “least untruthful” answer he could think of, one might expect the press to approach official statements about this story with a small amount of skepticism.

But journalists like Charlie Rose aren’t just failing to ask tough questions; many, like CNN correspondent Athena Jones, continue to repeat the Zazi talking point as if the Associated Press story never happened. As Jones reported on June 16:

Well, some of the information about the kinds of plots these surveillance programs have helped thwart is already trickling out. We know the NSA wants to make more data available–broadly, of course, not operational details.

One thing we learned from a declassified document that was released just yesterday was one plot thwarted with the help of these programs was the plot to bomb the New York subway system back in 2009. We know the government was listening in to calls, or tracking calls, I should say, from Najibullah Zazi, the man who was ultimately convicted of that plot, which at the time [was] called one of the most serious threats to the United States on the homeland since 2001, Fred.

In a similar story, last Wednesday, when NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander told Congress that his agency’s phone surveillance program had thwarted “dozens” of terrorism threats, his remarks received wide coverage. Alexander’s claims were challenged the next day by Senate Intelligence Committee members  Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D.-Colo.) in a statement that began: 

We have not yet seen any evidence showing that the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records has produced any uniquely valuable intelligence.

Wyden’s and Udall’s statements have received a fraction of that afforded Alexander’s, which continues to be repeated in several outlets as if Wyden and Udall didn’t exist (e.g., CBS News, 6/17/13; CNN, 6/16/13).

As of this writing, the NSA’s Alexander is claiming NSA programs also foiled a bomb plot targeting Wall Street, but has so far provided few details (AP, 6/18/13).


The thwarted Wall Street bomb plot cited yesterday by NSA chief Alexander as an NSA surveillance success story didn’t even last a day before it was discredited by the Christian Science Monitor and other media outlets. As the Monitor (6/18/13) noted yesterday, the same day Alexander made his claim:

According to officials at the House Intelligence hearing, this plan was caught when the NSA was using its Internet intercept authority to monitor the communications of a known extremist in Yemen.

This suspect, in turn, was in contact with an individual in the United States named Khalid Ouazzani. Thus warned, the FBI investigated Mr. Ouazzani through traditional law enforcement methods, and discovered a burgeoning plot to bomb the NYSE.

“Ouazzani had been providing information and support to this plot,” FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce told lawmakers.

However, Mr. Ouazzani pleaded guilty to providing material support–in his case, money–to Al-Qaeda, not to terror planning. His May 2010 plea agreement makes no mention of anything related to the New York Stock Exchange, or any bomb plot, notes David Kravets in Wired magazine.

Plus, Ouazzani’s defense attorney said Tuesday the stock market allegation was news to him.

“Khalid Ouazzani was not involved in any plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange,” attorney Robin Fowler told Wired.

A good roundup of other media takes on the NSA’s latest failed success story can be found at Washington’s Blog.

UPDATE 2: Corrected to give Ron Wyden to the correct state.

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.