Did NSA's PRISM Foil 2009 NY Subway Attack? Signs Point to No.


As noted a couple of days ago at Reason 24/7—our great newsfeed (follow it on Twitter)—government supporters of the recently revealed NSA "PRISM" program say that the metadata-gathering operation is instrumental to stopping terrorist acts on American soil.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the head of the House Intelligence Committee, has trotted out a specific example of this:

Rogers said that the phone and internet surveillance programs has been instrumental in stopping terrorist attacks, citing the 2009 terror plot by Najibullah Zazi, the Colorado resident who was arrested in Sept. 2009 after plotting to bomb the New York subway system….

"I can tell you, in the Zazi case in New York, it's exactly the program that was used," Rogers said, later adding, "I think the Zazi case is so important, because that's one you can specifically show that this was the key piece that allowed us to stop a bombing in the New York Subway system."

Is that accurate? All signs point to no.

As Buzzfeed's Ben Smith reports,

Public — though not widely publicized — details of the Zazi plot cast into doubt the notion that a data mining program had much to do with the investigation. Zazi traveled to Pakistan in 2008 to train with al Qaeda. He was charged in 2009 with leading two other men in a plot to detonate suicide bombs in the New York subways.

The path to his capture, according to the public records, began in April 2009, when British authorities arrested several suspected terrorists. According to a 2010 ruling from Britain's Special Immigration Appeals Commission, one of the suspects' computers included email correspondence with an address in Pakistan….

Later that year, according to a transcript of Zazi's July, 2011 trial, Zazi emailed his al Qaeda handler in Pakistan for help with the recipe for his bombs. He sent his inquiry to the same email address: sana_pakhtana@yahoo.com.

An FBI agent, Eric Jurgenson, testified, "I was notified, I should say. My office was in receipt of several e-mail messages, e-mail communications." Those emails — from Zazi to the same sana_pakhtana@yahoo.com — "led to the investigation," he testified.

The details of terror investigations are not always laid out this clearly in public; but they appear to belie the notion, advanced by anonymous government officials Friday, that sweeping access to millions of email accounts played an important roil in foiling the subway attack. Instead, this is the sort investigation made possible by ordinary warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; authorities appear simply to have been monitoring the Pakistani email account that had been linked to terrorists earlier that year.

More here.

A 2009 report by NPR on the case similarly highlighted the role that regular police work played in tracking and capturing Zazi. Specifically, the story notes that the FBI began tracking Zazi seriously after Pakistani intelligence officials tipped them off. One wonders if the same elected officials upset at the damage done by the simple revelation of PRISM's existence will swear out warrants against NPR, which titled its account, "Terrorism Case Shows Range Of Investigators' Tools."

Recall that in the wake of The PATRIOT Act's passage, its supporters claimed that it was vitally necessary to combat terrorism. In 2011, for instance, the Heritage Foundation published a list of 39 terrorist plots the PATRIOT Act had helped to foil. To call the list—which includes such failed attempts as Richard Reid's shoe bomb and 2009's underwear bomber, both of whom were subdued at high altitude by civilian passengers on commerical airlines—anything other than a joke is to indulge in the soft bigotry of low expectations (remember that Heritage is the outfit that recently released a widely panned—by other conservatives!—"study" of immigration's costs). Also in 2011, the federal government itself claimed that 400 people had been charged and half of them convicted specifically due to the PATRIOT Act.

The reality is a little bit different, as the ACLU spelled out in a report well worth reading:

A list obtained by the Justice Department defines only 361 cases defined as terrorism investigations from September 11, 2001 to September 2004. 31 of the entries on the list were blacked out. Only 39 of these individuals were convicted of crimes related to terrorism. The median sentence for these crimes was 11 months. This figure indicates that the crime that the government equated with terrorism was not serious. A study conducted by TRAC at Syracuse University notes that "despite the three-and-a-half-fold increase in terrorism convictions, the number who were sentenced to five years or more in prison has not grown at all from pre-9/11 levels." The convictions were more commonly for charges of passport violations, fraud, false statements, and conspiracy. Moreover, the median prison time for a serious offense, such as providing material support to a terrorist organization was only 4 months.

Get ready for more and more defenses of the new normal—NSA's PRISM and whatever else comes out over the next few days and weeks—that are just as weak as the argument that the PATRIOT Act was absolutely crucial to keeping terrorism at bay.

NEXT: Judge Refuses To Delay Zimmerman's Trial

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  1. I think it would be in everyone’s best interest if the FBI, with the next clueless terrorist wannabe it’s egging on so it can then publically foil, were to get some phone data work into the report it feeds news media so that we can justify NSA spying. How hard would that be?

    1. God damn you Fisty! I thought I was going to be first.

      1. Meh, it’s overrated anyway.

  2. As noted a couple of days ago at Reason 24/7 – our great shitty newsfeed

    Fixed it for you. And my condolences to you on having to shill for the newsfeed.




        Your pronouns don’t agree here. Unless with that last “him”, you mean you want to burn Nick Gillespie and that jacket. :-p

    2. coming soon: permaban!

  3. All signs point to no.

    Great….how many billions did that Magic 8-Ball cost the taxpayer?

    1. “”fish| 6.10.13 @ 2:48PM |#

      Great….how many billions did that Magic 8-Ball cost the taxpayer?

      Outlook not so good.

  4. Nice how you get the least flattering photo of Rep. Rogers possible. 🙂

    1. He represents my district – a real asshole. I used to kind of like him…then I got smarter.

      1. Fortunately, reapportionment/redistricting got rid of my HoR asshole and replaced him with a nonentity.

  5. Somewhat Related: Yeah, just saw this posted: “Are we more at risk to become a surveillance state or be subject to a terrorist attack.”

    My response, (leaving out the “…you fucking DUMBASS” at the end that really shoulda been there) – “Too late. We already live in a surveillance state, and we were just hit by a terrorist attack, and will be again. Everybody loses!”

    Fuck but people are fucking ignorant. PS Bonus – this is the idiot who indicated he was voting TEAM in the last Pres election because “I want my taxes to pay for garbage pickup.” Dude…that’s a LOCAL funct….never mind…

    1. “Fuck but people are fucking ignorant. PS Bonus – this is the idiot who indicated he was voting TEAM in the last Pres election because “I want my taxes to pay for garbage pickup.” Dude…that’s a LOCAL funct….never mind…””

      I mentioned a story where I was talking to a guy who proudly announced how ‘informed’ he was due to his lofty position as a New Yorker “fact checker”.

      (i.e. – he read articles and then googled a bunch of shit to see if anything was incorrect, as far as I could tell)

      When I asked him why he had such a hardon for “Moar Taxes” he went on a patronizing lecture about how we need ROADZ and BRIDGES and PRESCHOOL and LAWZ and…

      …I raised my hand at one point and pointed out that every single thing he’d mentioned was paid for by a) municipal bond issues, b) local property taxes, and c) state income taxes, etc., and all that the Federal Gov contributes is a military, three enormous failed insurance programs, and a lot of shitty, expensive meaningless regulations.

      He looked at me like I had just turned into Mola Ram from Temple of Doom…and had ripped his own beating, bloody heart out of his chest and made it burst into flame.

      He stammered, unsure: “That’s not true?”

      I sighed. “Look it up, dipshit”

      1. Doesn’t federal highway money go into some roads and bridges? Same with money from the education department? This is what I’ve always assumed.

  6. NSA as expensive boondoggle? No, no, no.

    Magic protects the NSA from bureaucratic empire-building, ass-covering, blame-shifting, expense-account padding, client-stroking, kickback-sucking, ego-puffery, and all the inefficiencies and waste associated with using Other People’s Money.

    The secret spells and incantations are powerful.

  7. Oh, PS:

    the soft bigotry of low expectations


  8. “The NSA has used this capability to foil numerous plots. Which ones? We can’t tell you without revealing classified information. Next question.”

    1. You just need to trust us. There is, like, so much oversight by officials that you elected. This is a democracy BTW. You are the government. So really, you knew about this all along. Press conference over!

    2. The NSA has used this capability to foil numerous plots.

      Zero is a number.

      1. There are a bunch of them. They just can’t tell you what they were for security reasons.

        1. Were any of them real? I suspect they instances of an FBI agent offering to make a bomb for some disgruntled internet troll, then using his “Yes” to get a warrant to mine NSA data related to that person.

          1. If they had access to actual terrorist plots, the FBI wouldn’t be creating them. And further, the guys in Boston did everything but send an email to the FBI that they were crazy nuts. Yet, the FBI never bothered to do anything.

  9. Either Rogers is lying or he just leaked classified information, which, at least according to people like Rogers, is supposed to be a bad thing.

    And again, if this program is so valuable, you would think Obama would just declassify a few old success and beat his opponents senseless with them. If Obama could point to a even a couple no kidding terror attacks that were foiled by this program, his critics would get nowhere with the public. Yet, oddly, he hasn’t done that. He must really be committed to not leaking political beneficial classified information. I mean look how little we know about the Bin Ladin raid.

  10. If they’d foiled a terrorist attack with NSA skillz, they’d have publicized it in one of those authorized/unauthorized leaks like with Bib Laden’s death.

    1. Great minds think alike. Yeah, if they had any actual success stories, Obama would have been doing a victory jig all over the media.

  11. Is it just me, or does dude in the pic look like Meatloaf?

  12. It is long past time to give the government the benefit of the doubt.

    So, no. NSA surveillance probably didn’t have much if anything to do with thwarting a NYC subway plot.

    Whenever the government benefits from a particular declaration, it is most likely to be a lie. When a particular declaration by government discredits government in any way, it is probably factual but spun in a way that minimizes damage.

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