Do the Zazi and Headley Arrests Prove the Power of NSA Total Surveillance?

Sorry, Sen. Feinstein and Rep. Rogers, it's not even close.


On the Sunday, June 9 edition of ABC News' This Week, the chairs of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees declared that recently disclosed National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance of phone-call "metadata" and Internet traffic involving U.S. citizens was largely responsible for two high-profile successes in the War on Terror.

The 2009 arrests of Najibullah Zazi and David Headley, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), wouldn't have happened without such programs.

Leaving aside important questions about whether such far-reaching surveillance is constitutional or prone to abuse, the claims by Feinstein and Rogers present the simplest, most-straightforward argument for the efficacy of the NSA's PRISM program and tracking of telecommunications involving Americans on American soil. However controversial and unsettling to many people, say Feinstein and Rogers, these programs are indispensable to keeping us all safe from harm.

Yet neither case cited by Feinstein and Rogers comes anywhere close to proving that the controversial programs had anything to do with thwarting violence in the United States or anywhere else. If published accounts, including court documents, are to be trusted (more on that later), Zazi and Headley aren't poster-children for the sort of surveillance that has apparently become the new normal. Far from it: Zazi was put away by traditional methods of tracking and watching a criminal and Headley was a former federal drug informant (!) whose terroristic leanings were revealed to the U.S. government years before he took any action.

As ABC News reported (watch video at that link too):

Both Feinstein and 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. Feinstein said the program also helped to track the case of David Headley, a Pakistani-American who traveled to Mumbai to scope the Taj Mahal Hotel for an attack.

 As Rogers put it,

"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."

Actually, the Zazi case seems to be a vindication of what Buzzfeed's Ben Smith calls "old-fashioned police work." That is, the staking-out of specific individuals to whom officials had been directed by specific tips. British and American court documents, writes Smith, show that intelligence officers were monitoring a particular email address that had been linked to "an al Qaeda associate" by British and Pakistani agents.

An FBI agent, Eric Jurgenson, testified [at Zazi's 2011 trial], "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.

British authorities learned of that Yahoo email address when they searched a computer of a terror suspect arrested in London in early 2009. They clued the Americans into the address, who then watched it.

A 2009 NPR account of Zazi's arrest further underscores that his capture came about less from stratospheric surveillance of all possible communications and more from intelligence gathering and information sharing among federal, state, and local police. In 2008, Zazi traveled to Pakistan and trained at a known al Qaeda camp, where he apparently learned the rudiments of bomb making. He was placed under surveillance upon his return to the United States.

"I think what's striking about the Zazi case is not so much that new tools were being used, but that old tools were being used in a comprehensive fashion," says Sam Rascoff, who used to work terrorism cases for the New York Police Department's intelligence unit. "And that they were being stitched together in a thoughtful, strategic way, so that one tool naturally gave way to another."

The Headley case similarly points away from the sort of ubiquitous dragging of communcations touted by Feinstein and Rogers and toward basic police work. Earlier this year, the Pakistani-American Headley—who went by his birth name Daood Gilani until 2006—was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role in scouting locations for the 2008 Mumbai bombings that killed hundreds of people. He has also pleaded guilty to conspiring to attack the headquarters of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published cartoons critical of Islam.

Headley/Gilani was hardly an unknown character to federal law enforcement before his 2009 arrest. For years, he was a highly prized informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), reported Pro Publica, and attended several Pakistani terrorist training camps between 2002 and 2005 while still apparently working for the DEA. In 2005, one of his wives (among his lesser crimes was being a bigamist), reported him to the Joint Terrorism Task Force after he allegedly beat her. The wife reportedly provided authorities with copies of tapes and other material showing he associated with Muslim extremists. Assuming standard protocols were followed, that incident would have triggered at least a preliminary report on Headley/Gilani, but it appears there was no follow up. Why not? From Pro Publica:

Investigators could have decided it simply wasn't worth pursuing, perhaps because [the terrorist group Lashkar-i-Taiba, with whom Headley/Gilani consorted] was seen primarily as a threat to India at that time.

Others believe investigators learned Gilani was still an informant for the U.S. government so they deferred to the existing operation. But federal officials speaking on background say that to their knowledge Gilani was no longer an informant at that point.

Another scenario: investigators may have opened a case and put him under surveillance. If he was an informant, his U.S. handlers could also have tracked his travels and intercepted his communications if they suspected wrongdoing and opened an investigation, officials said.

The New York Times reported in 2010 that Headley's Moroccan wife had two meetings in the U.S. embassy in Islamabad before the Mumbai attacks. The wife recounted the experience this way:

"I told them, he's either a terrorist, or he's working for you," she recalled saying to American officials at the United States Embassy in Islamabad. "Indirectly, they told me to get lost."

Another 2010 Pro Publica report credits British authorities with tipping off the FBI to Headley's plans to attack Jyllands-Posten. The Brits had been watching various Pakistani militants who called Headley "David the American" and contacted their U.S. counterparts, who eventually arrested Headley in the States.

Is the sort of NSA snooping that's in the news really instrumental to keeping us safe? "The instances where this has produced good—has disrupted plots, prevented terrorist attacks—is all classified," Feinstein said on This Week even as she and her House counterpart publicly discussed two such cases.

It's possible, of course, that the NSA and other intelligence sources scrubbed all possible references to top secret programs before newspaper articles were written and court testimony prepared. But given the relatively straightforward narratives behind the capture of Zazi and Headley—narratives in which "old tools" such as searching computers of suspects in custody and sharing information among agences play such clear roles—it seems highly unlikely.

At any rate, this much seems certain: In a world in which the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has pretty transparently lied before a Senate committee and even The New York Times says that President Obama "has lost all credibility" on the surveillance issue, the public is right to be highly skeptical of any claims about the absolute necessity of increasing state power in the name of stopping terrorism.

NEXT: Rep. Amash Wants Clapper's Resignation

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  1. “The instances where this has produced good?has disrupted plots, prevented terrorist attacks?is all classified,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)”.

    Is it possible for anything other than unmitigated horse shit to come out of this woman’s mouth?

    1. I imagine she could spit her dentures.

      1. Start working at home with Google! This is certainly the nicest-work I have ever done . Last Monday I got a new Alfa Romeo from bringing in $7778. I started this 9 months ago and practically straight away started making more than $83 per hour. I work through this link, Bling6.com

    2. She finds your lack of faith disturbing.

    3. Maybe she can also produce bull shit?

    4. There is nothing about Dianne Feinstein that does not irritate me.

    5. I think the joke “How can you tell a politician is lying? His/Her lips are moving” is about Dianne Feinstein.

  2. A 2009 NPR account of Zazi’s arrest further underscores that his capture came about less from stratospheric surveillance of all possible communications and more from intelligence gathering and information sharing among federal, state, and local police

    Yeah, In order for this program to “foil plots” the information has to be shared with LEOs. The NSA can’t act on it. But the NSA swears they won’t share the information.

    So which is it? Is this information shared and easily obtainable by LEOs in which case people’s privacy concerns are justified or is it kept in a vault as the NSA claims in which case the program is worthless?

    1. We all know what it is even if few are willing to say it out loud.

    2. You and your logocentrism – the tyranny of the Law of Non-Contradiction is a barrier to progress.

  3. Couldnt they have come up with something slightly less Orwellian than PRISM?

    Really, it is like they are trying as hard as they can to become a bond movie villain or a Rand novel brought to life.

    Ok, maybe it isnt just ‘like’ that.

    1. Couldn’t figure out an acronym for PANOPTICON is my guess

      1. I cant believe I missed that one. I tip my hat to you BrettL.

    2. II. Under the Shadow

      Shreds of black cloud loom in overcast skies. The Necromancer keeps watch with his magic prism eyes. He views all his lands and is already aware of the three helpless invaders trapped in his lair…

  4. Moreover, doesn’t pointing to the Zazi case undermine the claim that Americans’ data is not being collected? Granted he is not a US citizen, but the communications took place within the US and his status could not have been known at the time the emails were obtained.

  5. “The instances where this has produced good?has disrupted plots, prevented terrorist attacks?is all classified,”
    I don’t care.
    Locking up every single human being could help, too, but I don’t care.
    4th Amendment; read it.

    1. If it saves just one life, don’t we have an obligation to take everyone’s rights?

  6. Hmmm it just occured to me…..how long before someone hacks PRISM or government files and uses info to steal identities or worse?

    1. If it happens, it will be classified. Then blamed on market failure. And Dianne Feinstein (D-Cunt) will stand up in the Senate and DEMAND more government oversight of the private companies who allowed this to happen.

    2. What would you bet that the Chinese already have done so?

    3. The beauty of DATA is that it’s fungible.
      We know from experience that:
      cops/storm troopers/garbage collectors will use the data to stalk ex girlfriends, harrass inlaws, and stalk for new girlfriends;
      summer interns will leave the data at bus stops and bars;
      chinese hackers will steal in great piles;
      web masters will leave it on public websites;
      Moldovian gangsters will steal it or pay low-level contractors to steal (then it will be put to good use – the private sector has to deliver);
      and low-level employees will leak it to the press and embarrass the ruling clique, and thus embarrass the people with the same tribal affiliation as the ruling junta.

      But catching terrorist is hard.

  7. Nick Gillespie looks like a man in need of a good tax audit.

    1. Conveniently, PRISM now offers real-time auditing.

      1. Why stop there?? Maybe the EPA needs to check that the landscaping project he did at his house didn’t violate a wetlands area or displace the natural habitat of an endangered species. Maybe OHSA needs to dismantle the kitchen to make sure there are no hidden safety concerns. Maybe the Dept of Ed needs to confiscate his kids’ computers to make verify the quality and timeliness of their homework and make sure that any entertainment media they are consuming is entirely age-appropriate, which if any of is not, then the case should be referred to his state’s Department of Families and Child Protective Services for a possible move to foster home and termination of parental rights. When you have complete power, meddling to the point of complete disruption of one’s life only takes a modicum of imagination.

  8. People have latched on to the idea that “you can’t show a single case of abuse of this program” without realizing that the program’s existence is inherently abusive.

    1. Why only yesterday there was a story about a man who was interrogated, threatened and had his home searched because of his twitters. He had not made any threats or advocated anything violent, just expressed disagreement with Obama and had gained a following.

      1. And today there’s the story about an Illinois senatorial candidate who Lois Lerner told not to run again. She actually threatened to prosecute him for FEC violations, and said that she’d let him off if he didn’t run ever again. Then the FBI went to his mom’s house and asked her where she got the $2000 she gave to her son’s campaign.

        But obviously this would never be abused, and we should just trust the government.

        1. as a prosperous lawyer he won the Republican Senate nomination to run against a Democratic congressman named Dick Durbin.

          Last week, in a televised House Ways and Means Committee hearing, Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., Salvi’s former law partner, told the riveting story of the partisan enforcement of campaign laws to suppress political competition by distracting Salvi and entangling him in bureaucratic snares. The next day, the number of inches of newsprint in The Washington Post and New York Times devoted to Roskam’s revelation was the number of minutes that had been devoted to it on the three broadcast networks’ evening news programs the night before: Zero.

          Yeah, but he was a Republican, so he was obviously guilty of some kind of HateThought or other. So it’s not really newsworthy.

        2. In 2010, Durbin wrote a letter urging Lerner’s IRS division to look closely at a political advocacy group supporting conservatives.

          I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the politician Lerner threatened while at the FEC was running against… Dick Durbin. Fuck that assclown.

        3. That story came out a few weeks ago, but good for Will for publicizing it.

          I have strong suspicions that NSA data mining is not entirely separate from Obama campaign data mining.

    2. How can you show a case of abuse when it’s all classified and secret? Isn’t that convenient.

      1. You know what I would do if I were a Republican Congressman? An old counterespionage tactic to detect leaks. Come up with an imaginary but plausible plan to attack the administration in some way, say a demonstration outside the IRS building. Communicate this “secretly” to fellow Congresscritters through your Verizon Blackberries and other supposedly secure means that you suspect the NSA has access to. Then, see if the Obama administration arranges a counter-demonstration or takes any sort of counteraction.

  9. However controversial and unsettling to many people, say Feinstein and Rogers, these programs are indispensable to keeping us all safe from harm.

    No, fuck you, obey the Constitution!

    1. I like that better than my comment at same time.

    2. What they meant to say:

      However controversial and unsettling to many people, say Feinstein and Rogers, these programs are indispensable to keeping those of us in power all safe from losing that power.

  10. Better 100 guilty men go free than 1 innocent one be convicted.

    Its the same concept, freedom is more important than security.

    1. Dude, that’s like a hundred years old

  11. how is convicting a guy for his role in a terrorist bombing that killed hundreds “foiling a plot”?

    1. Come on, man. It’s Feinstein… She thinks hollow points implode. How can she be held responsible for not knowing something like the fact that in order foil a plot, the plot can’t actually have been successful. That’s just crazy talk.

      1. Questioning her understanding of ballistics? How dare you! She was THERE when the mayor and councilman Milk were shot. That gives her a unique insight and deep expertise into any and all matters related to firearms. Why, had she not become a senator, she could have easily replaced Q as James Bond’s armorer, such is her knowledge and expertise related to firearms due to the tragedy she personally witnessed back in the 70s.

  12. If people still believe the words that come out of Dianne Feinstein’s mouth, then they really are as dumb as she thinks they are.

  13. Didn’t Headley actually successfully execute his plot? If the NSA knew about the whole time, why the heck didn’t they stop it?

    1. Probably because they were complicit

  14. At this point, I’m more afraid of my government than I am of terrorists.

    1. ^^^^ THIS.

      You’re far more likely to be targeted by the nanny state than you are any terrorists.

  15. Oh yawn. The only slight sense of amusement from the whole kerfuffle (being the last couple of years) comes from watching the absolutely bat shit reaction to the actually most ongoing ‘scandal’ (and yes, it’s in quotes for a reason) of recent months. But how is this different? Up to this point, all of the yelling and screaming has been about bad actors in the midst of society’s systems, abusing the privilege and poser of those positions, usually for some politically motivated partisan reason. Bad, bad, baaaaad. Then, just when it seemed we were all at least use3d to a new weekly outrage to be outrageously outraged over, splat, along comes a kid that looks to be from central casting, playing conscientious objector. Only thing is – this latest bombshell is about . . . the government, and very dedicated people it hired, doing exactly what we consciously (or even sub-consciously) WANT them to do – stand watch so that we may sleep soundly at night. And no drama, tyvm.

    But everything old is a new outrage again. This has been going on, in a balanced manner, since before WWII. And the involvement IS mentioned in the ‘old fashioned police work’ cited as how the cases cited were investigated. You just don’t know what parts you should be keying on. Who do you think collected the recorded material that was reviewed after court orders and search warrants were issued? Or did it magically appear?

    The NSA is probably the closest thing the world has to a “tape recorder”

  16. the government, and very dedicated people it hired, doing exactly what we consciously (or even sub-consciously) WANT them to do – stand watch so that we may sleep soundly at night.

    Yes, I want them to stand watch…WHILE COMPLYING WITH THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA first and foremost.

    You honestly don’t see a difference?

    1. In this day and age, I don’t believe both can be done concurrently, because it doesn’t favor expanding govt. and or the need for all the agencies that waste our tax dollars.

  17. ? *?????*my best friend’s aunt makes $60/hr on the laptop. She has been without work for 7 months but last month her income was $14225 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Read more here… http://www.zen65.com

  18. These hacks want us to believe that the surveillance is necessary to thwart terrorism, yet there have been other recent “terrorist-like” tragedies that somehow slipped through the cracks.

    Another point, is that maybe if our govt. didn’t spend so much time invading the affairs of other nations, we would not have to worry about militants wanting to hurt us. However, I believe that our govt. enjoys doing this because it helps to justify the need for such programs and increased defense spending, both of which are just ways to expand government.

  19. If you think Harold`s story is shocking,, 4 weeks ago my friend’s brother also recieved a check for $9195 working 40 hours a month in their apartment and their neighbor’s mother`s neighbour was doing this for three months and recieved a check for more than $9195 part time at there pc. applie the information on this address, http://www.pro76.com

  20. It’s actual lightweight and comes in biscuit covering and amber suede. Hey, with Kate Moss clay the bag, how can you go wrong?If authoritative a appearance account to the world is something you strive for, again Uggs, Uggs for kids and Longchamp purses and accoutrements will do the trick. You and your accouchement will be the backbiting of anybody you know!Hong Kong Godfather Wyman Wong has evaluated the trend of Korean Blaze Fire: the approaching longchamp sale outle store date is in actuality dispatch on the Street, Women’s top heels, that the spirit of affliction for the fashion, it is awarded Medal of Honor.

  21. my classmate’s half-sister makes $89 hourly on the laptop. She has been without work for eight months but last month her pay was $17560 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more http://www.zen45.com

  22. very nice post d?viz

  23. They have surveillance everywhere these days! It kind of scares me.
    The world is increasingly a scary place. On Friday I’m traveling to Israel to go on various tours with Egged Tours (http://www.eggedtours.com). Wish me luck!

  24. Sorry, bad link. Egged Tours

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