A secret U.S. intelligence program to collect emails that is at the heart of an uproar over government surveillance helped foil an Islamist militant plot to bomb the New York City subway system in 2009, U.S. government sources said on Friday.
The sources said Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, was talking about a plot hatched by Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-born U.S. resident, when he said on Thursday that such surveillance had helped thwart a significant terrorist plot in recent years.
This is, allegedly, the plot Rogers alluded to Thursday.
But, as with all of this, it’s rather unclear exactly which program and powers resulted in this plot being broken up. Other sources sound like they’re saying this program was more targeted and more focused on foreign operatives than the PRISM we’ve heard so much about:
The surveillance program that halted the Zazi plot was one that collected email data on foreign intelligence suspects, a U.S. government source said.
The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Thursday published top-secret information from inside NSA that described how the agency gathered masses of email data from prominent Internet firms, including Google, Facebook and Apple under the PRISM program. Some of the companies denied that the NSA and FBI had “direct access” to their central servers.
On Friday, CBS News correspondent John Miller, a former U.S. intelligence and FBI official, reported that U.S. authorities had discovered the Zazi plot after running across an email sent to a rarely used al Qaeda address that was associated with a notorious bomb-maker based in Pakistan.
The surveillance program in which feds are watching over foreign intelligence suspects communicating with Pakistani-based bomb-makers would likely pass muster with most Americans, and is more along the lines of what they likely thought was going on. But describing it that way makes it sound much less problematic than the NSA or PRISM programs we’ve been talking about this week. Are we talking two separate programs, here? Or, was the e-mail to a bomb-maker stumbled upon in the giant haystack haul of all of America’s browsing habits? And, if it took trawling all of us, all the time, for God knows how long, was it worth it, and could it have been done less intrusively? Time for that debate, I guess. Glad the White House is so into that.
Glenn Greenwald is taking heart in this announcement, from Eric Holder:
Appearing before a Senate panel, Holder also generally declined comment about a long-running National Security Agency program to collect phone record of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon as part of an anti-terrorist effort, and affirmed he will not prosecute journalists for doing their jobs.
It’s a decent start, but he should probably extend his skepticism of the feds to any promise made by Holder, too. Clarification: I meant “a decent start” from Holder, and I was being facetious in ribbing Greenwald for his lack of skepticism, as he’s famously and pretty consistently skeptical. I think he was tweeting Holder’s promise in that context.
Update: Ben Smith at Buzzfeed takes a closer look back at the Zazi case, and finds this defense lacking.
Defenders of the American government’s online spying program known as “PRISM” claimed Friday that the suddenly controversial secret effort had saved New York City’s subways from a 2009 terrorist plot led by a young Afghan-American, Najibullah Zazi.
But British and American legal documents from 2010 and 2011 contradict that claim, which appears to be the latest in a long line of attempts to defend secret programs by making, at best, misleading claims that they were central to stopping terror plots. While the court documents don’t exclude the possibility that PRISM was somehow employed in the Zazi case, the documents show that old-fashioned police work, not data mining, was the tool that led counterterrorism agents to arrest Zazi. The public documents confirm doubts raised by the blogger Marcy Wheeler and the AP’s Adam Goldman, and call into question a defense of PRISM first floated by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, who suggested that PRISM had stopped a key terror plot.
Read the whole thing.
— Justin Elliott (@JustinElliott) June 8, 2013