As the drip-drip-drip revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance programs continued to make headlines thanks to reporting by the Guardian and Washington Post, defenders of the NSA were left arguing that the programs had stopped terrorist attacks. They couldn’t tell you how, exactly—you just had to trust them that many dangerous plots had been disrupted.
But when the government proclaimed in early August the existence of a somewhat vague but extraordinarily dangerous new terrorist threat from a branch of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, it provided an opportunity to link NSA snooping to a War on Terror “success”—and many in the corporate media were all too happy to play along.
The government’s announcement that the threat was forcing the closure of more than a dozen US embassies around the world was a big issue on the Sunday chat shows—and a big opening for surveillance program supporters. On NBC’s Meet the Press (8/4/13), host David Gregory referred to the Yemen warnings as “an Al-Qaeda terror trap,” and has this exchange with Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R.-Ga.):
GREGORY: Senator Chambliss, look, we’re also in the middle of a big debate over surveillance programs. I’ve got to put the question to you directly. Are our surveillance programs what are giving us this stream of specific information, specific intelligence on this potential plot?
CHAMBLISS: Well, that’s kind of interesting, David, because in fact they are…. If we did not have these programs, then we simply wouldn’t be able to listen in on the bad guys.
On CBS’s Face the Nation (8/4/13), reporter Bob Orr called it “a serious, credible threat, probably the most serious the government has seen since 2006.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.) declared
that security is very, very important, and…the agencies in charge are darned good. 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.”
On CNN’s State of the Union (8/4/13), Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham claimed that “the NSA program is proving its worth yet again.” On ABC’s This Week (8/4/13), viewers saw two House members—Peter King (R.-N.Y) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D.-Md.)—announce the incident as vindication for the NSA. As Ruppersberger put it: “The good news is that we picked up intelligence. That’s what the NSA does.”
A similar message came from former Bush Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff—whose current job involves advising private companies on security and counter-terrorism—who declared that “apparently the collection of this warning information came from the kinds of programs we’ve been discussing about, the ability to capture communications overseas.”
Claims by politicians were treated as facts by some reporters. “Officials tell us they believe that there are Al-Qaeda operatives already in place for this attack,” CNN correspondent Barbara Starr (8/5/13) said, adding: “The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee confirms it’s the controversial NSA electronic surveillance program that picked up the alarming terrorist chatter.” ABC This Week guest host Martha Raddatz (8/4/13) simply declared that “the NSA helped uncover this latest terror threat.”
The message could not be clearer: Yes, the NSA programs are controversial, but they are alerting us to real dangers in the world. But from the start there were warnings that the two stories should not be linked. As one Washington Post report (8/5/13) noted, the Yemen story “comes during a national debate over the proper scope of surveillance programs to detect terrorism plots. Officials cautioned against conflating the issues.”
But the desire to link the controversial NSA programs to the terror warning was apparently hard to resist. The New York Times (8/3/13) reported that the White House was refraining from disclosing much about the information that prompted the warnings—but then the paper offered a link:
But intercepting electronic communications is one of the National Security Agency’s main jobs, as the documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, have only underscored.
The Times went on to add:
Some analysts and congressional officials suggested Friday that emphasizing a terrorist threat now was a good way to divert attention from the uproar over the NSA’s data-collection programs, and that if it showed the intercepts had uncovered a possible plot, even better.
“Better” for whom is, of course, debatable. Erasing the key distinction between the NSA programs that generated so much of the controversy—collecting the phone records of every American, capturing some unspecified amount of Internet traffic, government officials misleading Congress— and the work of actually disrupting or preventing terrorist attacks does a profound disservice to public understanding. But that would seem to be precisely the point.
There was some coverage that posed the fundamental question: Was it NSA surveillance that picked up the intelligence about Al-Qaeda that had the government on edge? The Associated Press (8/6/13) reported that one official said the types of programs Snowden revealed definitely weren’t involved:
Officials in the US wouldn’t say who intercepted the initial suspect communications—the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency or one of the other intelligence agencies.... But an intelligence official said the controversial NSA programs that gather data on American phone calls or track Internet communications with suspected terrorists played no part in detecting the initial tip. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the spying publicly.
It’s entirely possible that single unnamed official wasn’t telling the truth. But it was far easier to comprehend the motivation behind the sources who provided the background for an astonishing Daily Beast report (8/7/13) by Eli Lake and Josh Rogin:
The crucial intercept that prompted the US government to close embassies in 22 countries was a conference call between Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders and representatives of several of the group’s affiliates throughout the region.
All told, said one US intelligence official, more than 20 Al-Qaeda operatives were on the call, with one anonymous source calling it “like a meeting of the Legion of Doom,” referring to a famous cast of comic book super villains. The story did not claim the NSA had uncovered the plot, and the authors were careful to explain that their story had nothing to do with NSA surveillance. But anything that would suggest the US government could tap into “conference calls” among Al-Qaeda leaders was bound to get wrapped up in the NSA debate.
The Daily Beast revelations sparked widespread coverage, along with questions about whether the story really held up. The story would seem to expose a rather important intelligence operation that allowed US officials to keep tabs on an Al-Qaeda planning session. Would government officials, mindful of the Obama administration’s approach to sensitive leaks to the media, really spill the beans like this?
Veteran journalist Ken Silverstein raised some doubts about the story in a Harper’s blog post (8/15/13), noting that co-author Eli Lake had written some of the more credulous stories about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Lake responded via Twitter (8/22/13), “This may be a generational issue, but I don’t know anyone who still reads Harpers.”
And then a Daily Beast follow-up (8/20/13) seemed to shift the story: It was now a recording of an encrypted Internet communications session of some sort, a copy of which was obtained when an Al-Qaeda courier was captured. That’s not exactly the same thing as listening in on a “conference call.”
Soon enough, US drone strikes were launched in apparent response to the intelligence chatter (Washington Post, 8/6/13), and the Yemen story was all but forgotten. Unsettling revelations based on the Edward Snowden documents continue to make news, though—maintaining an incentive for government officials to link the controversial snooping programs to a victory in the seemingly unending war on terror.
While the Yemen threat passed for the moment, some in the media warned that the threat was essentially never over. As CBS correspondent Bob Orr put it (CBS Evening News, 8/7/13), “It’s important to remember there is no expiration date for this terror scare.”