NSA intercepts key to British terror convictions

The British courts convicted several Islamic terrorists of plotting to blow up at least seven trans-Atlantic flights as a follow-up to the 9/11 attacks. It took two trials to convict them of conspiracy and terrorism. What changed between the first trial and the convictions? The US allowed the UK to use intercepts from the NSA that uncovered the plot and identified the terrorists (via Instapundit):

The three men convicted in the United Kingdom on Monday of a plot to bomb several transcontinental flights were prosecuted in part using crucial e-mail correspondences intercepted by the U.S. National Security Agency, according to Britain’s Channel 4.

The e-mails, several of which have been reprinted by the BBC and other publications, contained coded messages, according to prosecutors. They were intercepted by the NSA in 2006 but were not included in evidence introduced in a first trial against the three last year.

That trial resulted in the men being convicted of conspiracy to commit murder; but a jury was not convinced that they had planned to use soft drink bottles filled with liquid explosives to blow up seven trans-Atlantic planes — the charge for which they were convicted this week in a second trial.

According to Channel 4, the NSA had previously shown the e-mails to their British counterparts, but refused to let prosecutors use the evidence in the first trial, because the agency didn’t want to tip off an alleged accomplice in Pakistan named Rashid Rauf that his e-mail was being monitored. U.S. intelligence agents said Rauf was al Qaeda’s director of European operations at the time and that the bomb plot was being directed by Rauf and others in Pakistan.

The NSA later changed its mind and allowed the evidence to be introduced in the second trial, which was crucial to getting the jury conviction. Channel 4 suggests the NSA’s change of mind occurred after Rauf, a Briton born of Pakistani parents, was reportedly killed last year by a U.S. drone missile that struck a house where he was staying in northern Pakistan.

Interestingly, even though prosecutors asked to use the intercepts in the first trial (and were refused), British courts won’t accept intercepts as evidence. The US had to get a subpoena to have Yahoo release the records in order to provide a clean chain of evidence. There’s no indication why the British didn’t do that initially, but it seems from the Wired report that the US still had a hot lead from Rauf’s e-mail; apparently, Rauf never realized it was compromised. Whether that had any role in his sudden and explosive commitment to room temperature may never be known, but it seems likely to have been a fruitful source of intelligence.

And that is precisely the point. The NSA program surveilled international communications passing through American telecoms in order to find and disrupt terrorist plots. Until now, their role in stopping the deaths of thousands of passengers over the Atlantic had not been commonly known. The NSA program did its job — it saved the lives of Americans and others in large numbers.

Will the American media report this? So far, the evidence shows that it will get the Van Jones treatment, or perhaps even worse. The New York Times reported it on its blog — but nowhere in print. John Burns, normally an excellent reporter, neglects to mention the NSA at all in his coverage of the convictions yesterday. Neither did the AP report that the Times reprinted. The Washington Post only reported that the British used intel from the US, including “evidence supplied by the CIA and other U.S. agencies,” never mentioning the NSA’s role in the convictions at all. In fact, in a report explicitly about the use of intercepts in British trials, the Post never bothers to mention the NSA at all.