U.S. intel official: Controversial NSA programs played no role in detecting initial Al Qaeda terror tip

A follow-up to yesterday’s post noting that, for all the dark accusations recently that the new threat has been exaggerated to tout the NSA’s terror-bustin’ skills, no one in the government’s claiming that the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs were key in sniffing this out. On the contrary:

Officials in the U.S. 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 — that kicked off the sweeping pre-emptive closure of U.S. facilities. 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.

The AP goes on to say that domestic surveillance “could” have helped flesh out the plot from there, once the initial tip had been obtained through other means, but it sounds like they’re merely speculating. (“[I]f a new name was detected in the initial chatter, the name or phone number of that person could be run through the NSA databases to see whom he called or what websites or emails he visited.”) But that raises another question: What exactly was the initial tip and when did the feds get it? The AP says that the communique from Zawahiri to Al Qaeda in Yemen that sent U.S. intel into a frenzy was intercepted “several weeks ago.” Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon says other pieces of the puzzle are … months old:

Al Qaeda “chatter” about coming terrorist operations, mainly against 22 U.S. embassies and consulates, and threats to attack or bomb officials in the Middle East and elsewhere was widely reported in classified intelligence reports over several months. The report said an attack was planned for Sunday, although no attack was carried out…

“Why is this coming out now?” asked one official with access to terrorist threat data. “Is the administration trying to suck up news coverage with the embassy threats to distract attention from what the CIA was doing in Benghazi?“…

The threat followed three reported U.S. drone strikes in Yemen that killed several al Qaeda terrorists who were traveling in vehicles. Missile attacks from U.S. armed drones were carried out July 27, July 30, and Aug. 1 in al Qaeda strongholds in Yemen.

CNN’s big Benghazi scoop dropped on August 1 but, as Gertz notes, an unusual spike in drone strikes in Yemen was already underway by then. This AFP report from August 1 notes three strikes in the five days preceding; that sort of activity suggests urgency, which jibes with the fact that the feds later said they feared August 4 was the target date for an attack. The info about the Zawahiri tip in the AP piece isn’t inconsistent with Gertz’s piece either. It may be that there was random jihadi chatter about hitting western targets for months but nothing too out of the ordinary until AQ’s number one himself weighed in. That would have changed the complexion of the threat, and it may also be that while the feds had reason to believe that something was afoot, not until very recently did they get a tip zeroing in on August 4 as the likely date. That would have spurred the drone strikes and the embassy closings. Indeed, the AP piece notes that “the threat was expanded to include American or other Western sites abroad” after the initial Zawahiri intercept was obtained, which goes to show that the mosaic of intelligence here has been widening over time (as you’d expect).

Then again, if this really is a big ploy to steer attention away from CNN’s Benghazi revelations, it’s working like a charm so far, huh?

If you’re invested in the idea of government incompetence/malfeasance in handling this threat, read Angelo Codevilla’s piece from Sunday instead. Quote: “The terrorists who have bitten us have not chattered, while those who chatter do not bite.” A communique from the head of AQ to the head of AQAP was guaranteed to prompt a massive U.S. counterterror response. If Zawahiri was dead set on seeing a big attack come off, why would he attempt something like that knowing that there’s at least a chance that we’re reading his e-mail?

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