NSA Director Softens Claims About Surveillance's Contribution in 50 Terrorism Cases


General Keith Alexander
U.S. Government

So … Just how crucial was the contribution of massive and uber-creepy National Security Agency snooping to preventing the now-infamous 50 potential terrorist incidents? Not long ago NSA Director General Keith Alexander told Congress that the interception of phone and Internet communications revealed by Edward Snowden "protected the U.S. and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe." He's still claiming a positive role for Prism and other NSA activities, but his words to his own employees make the programs sound somewhat less definitive than you'd think from his past claims.

On June 18, before the House Intelligence Committee, Gen. Alexander said:

In recent years, these programs, together with other intelligence, have protected the U.S. and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe, to include helping prevent a terrorist – potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11.

We will actually bring forward to the committee tomorrow documents that the inter-agency has agreed on that in a classified setting gives every one of those cases for you to review. We'll add two more today publicly – we'll discuss – but as the Chairman noted, if we give all those out, we give all the secrets of how we're tracking down terrorists as a community and we can't do that. Too much is at risk for us and for our allies.

He added:

We would like to make three fundamental points:

First, these programs are critical to the intelligence community's ability to protect our nation and our allies' security. They assist the intelligence community's efforts to connect the dots.

Second, these programs are limited, focused, and subject to rigorous oversight. They have distinct purposes and oversight mechanisms. We have rigorous training programs for our analysts and their supervisors to understand their responsibilities regarding compliance.

Third, the disciplined operations of these programs protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people. We will provide important details about each of those…

But yesterday, in a statement to the people working for the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, he said.

On 21 June we provided over 50 cases to both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that show the specific contribution of these programs to our understanding and, in many cases, disruption of terrorist plots in the United States and over 20 countries throughout the world. These results were achieved consistent with our responsibilities under the law. A report issued by the Senate Judiciary in June 2012 emphasized that the government has implemented its intelligence authorities in a responsible manner: "Through four years of oversight, the committee has not identified a single case in which a government official engaged in willful effort to circumvent or violate the law." More than 50 disruptions with zero willful failures in the protection of civil liberties—that's an incredible record and is a testament to NSA's staunch commitment to protecting and upholding the privacy and civil liberties of the American people even as we keep our nation safe. This has been accomplished by the extraordinary people at NSA, the real heroes, working alongside our partners within the Intelligence Community.

I don't think I'm being a nitpicker when I say there's a difference between "these programs, together with other intelligence, have protected the U.S. and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe" and "specific contribution of these programs to our understanding and, in many cases, disruption of terrorist plots." On the one hand, we have "critical" programs, and on the other we have something that sounds more like a helpful research tool.

That distinction in the claimed centrality of the programs is important given the further distinction between "these programs protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people" and "[t]hrough four years of oversight, the committee has not identified a single case in which a government official engaged in willful effort to circumvent or violate the law." The statement before Congress is absolute, the statement to his own people sounds more like, "nobody can prove intent!"

That's without getting into the fact that many of us are unimpressed by the legal standards and parameters set by the federal government on surveillance.

Maybe this is a matter of sloppy choices in phraseology, but these aren't off-the-cuff coments. Gen. Alexander testified before Congress in the first incident, and issued an official and presumably vetted communication to his staff in the other, both on a high-profile, highly controversial matter that has sparked international debate.

So … How important and respectful of our liberty are these snooping schemes again?

NEXT: Adam Thierer on Anti-Tech Grump Evgeny Morozov

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  1. Uh, if PRISM wasn’t effective and necessary to stop terrorists, why would the NSA bother doing it? Use your head, Tuccille.

  2. The NSA has just admitted that it is incompatible with a free republic. It must be immediately dismantled.

    1. This country hasn’t been a republic since the 17A was ratified.

      1. It’s a certified Banana Republic. Close enough for govt work!

      2. The 17th Amendment as Doom argument doesn’t really hold water with me. The states were the ones who approved the amendment by a three-fourths margin, and in fact the only reason Congress passed it is because they thought the states would call a convention to pass it otherwise. If the state legislatures willingly and enthusiastically gave up their power to elect senators, why would we think they would actually limit federal power if they still elected them? They’d just elect people who would try to use federal power to benefit their state in particular. Also, by definition that didn’t end the republic. The government was still representative in nature. You can argue it ended the US’s status as a federal republic, but that’s debatable

        1. There’s no one single thing that throttled limited government in the U.S. It’s a whole lot of things.

          Or it was all the lead in our pipes, which made us insane.

          1. But in this case, I just am not seeing the logic as to how this contributed at all. The argument goes that if state legislatures elected senators, that senators would be more interested in limiting federal power to please them. Given that the state legislatures were the entities primarily responsible for passing the 17th Amendment, I’m not seeing how that’s a valid argument. Again, I think it’s far more likely that state legislatures would elect senators that would use federal power to benefit their state. We may not get many Rand Pauls elected under the current system, but I don’t seen any getting elected under the old system

            1. Well, to be sure, we the people allow the government to do stupid things all the time. Just because the legislatures went along with a popular sentiment doesn’t mean it wasn’t a blow to federalism. It was. I’ve never been clear on why they jumped on board.

              I’d be okay with some other check on federal authority if that one can’t work. Like letting the states control the collection and allocation of income taxes, maybe.

              1. I’ve never been clear on why they jumped on board.

                It was another way to pass the buck to avoid having to take direct responsibility for anything.

            2. For me the logic is that if the senators represented the state governments, they would be less likely to approve unfunded mandates and such. Sure they’d happily approve free shit, but I doubt they’d be so willing to support things like lowering the drinking age or lose federal highway funds. Or Obamacare.

              1. I disagree with that. Sure, maybe the senators from the states that had a low drinking age might oppose that, but what about the senators from the states with a high drinking age? Also disagree with Obamacare. Do you think Democrats in state legislatures don’t support the law? And if they could tell their constituents that the senator they voted for helped give them free shit, that’s an added bonus for them.

                As I said, if the old system actually worked in its goal of using state legislatures to limit federal power, the state legislatures would have never given it up. That’s the last the thing they would have done if the theory is valid. The Leviathan was already on the path to where it is today when the 17th was passed.

    2. Just imagine how safe we would be with the Bill of Rights suicide pact.

  3. Am I shocked?

    1. Maybe we should up the voltage.

  4. Well, I’m convinced of the necessity to NSA continue to do what it’s been doing. To us.

    For THE CHILDREN. Safety first!

    1. Jesus Fuck ME – “FOR NSA TO” etc. etc.

  5. “Maybe this is a matter of sloppy choices in phraseology …”

    On the contrary, it’s an artful prevarication. The clear objective is to fabricate an efficacious justification for unlimited power. The administration knows that its programs are unconstitutional, but it also knows that vague laws can be interpreted in any way they please … as long as nobody knows what the interpretation is or how it is being interpreted. Secrecy serves secret powers.

  6. This reminds me of how driving incident reports have the box “was alcohol involved?” Doesn’t matter that I was parked at a red light and rear ended by a jackass who couldn’t see a big blue truck parked at a stop light. If I had a beer a couple hours prior to the accident, it goes down as an “alcohol related incident”.

    1. That is a good analogy. The implication is that the plots would not have been discovered sans the program. The reality is that the program in most cases marginally contributed to disrupting plots that police already knew about.

  7. When they disrupted these 50 terrorist plots, how many of them resulted in captured terrorists, and what happened to the terrorists who were involved in these plots?

    1. That too. IS it the case that they are allowing terrorists to roam free? What happened to the terrorists in these plots? If the plot was disrupted every one of them should have been killed, captured or on a wanted list.

      1. Maybe it’s extraordinary rendition?

        I think they should have to account for these people.

        Are they being secretly tried and convicted and held somewhere else?

        If there were (at least) 50 new terrorists in Guantanamo, I think we’d have heard about that. We even hear about the ones the CIA is keeping there.

        This sounds like a pretty big operation they’re running! At least 50 new terrorists in custody? Where are they putting them all?

        Or, maybe, like you said, these terrorists are just roaming free.

        Or–maybe–he’s counting terrorist attacks like the ones that happen in Afghanistan and Iraq every day. And if he’s counting those as thwarted attacks? Then I’m calling foul.

        If they’re thwarting terrorist attacks here in the U.S., that MIGHT be one thing, but we don’t need them keeping track of who we talk to and for how long just to thwart terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.

    2. You know damn well what happened to them. And to anyone within 25m of where they happened to be standing when it happened.

      1. Not exactly. The NSA wasn’t listening to people in Pakistan. That is not who they are talking about. They mean 50 domestic plots.

        1. Yeah, they’re supposedly protecting us Americans, here, from terrorist attacks.

          That was their justification for tracking our phone calls.

          I don’t think I’m buying their justification even if what they’re saying is true, but if their own justification doesn’t even make sense in terms of thwarting terrorist attacks here in the United States?

          Then they’re just full of it.

        2. Yeah but supposedly (according to them…take that for what it’s worth) the traffic listened to involved overseas calls, so it’s more than likely some people on the receiving end of a terrorist-related phone call in Pakistan were then on the receiving end of something a little more violent a few hours later.

          1. I buy that, and it sounds reasonable to me.

            It’s just that when they were justifying putting us all under surveillance, when they said they were thwarting 50 terrorist attacks, my understanding was that they were thwarting terrorist attacks against targets here in the United States–not terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

            I think that’s what most people assumed. If what they’re doing is putting us all under surveillance to thwart attacks overseas, then they should say so.

            Because that’s not okay with most Americans. Not that public opinion trumps my rights anyway, but I don’t think that’ll even fly in the court of public opinion.

            1. I was thinking that people can be part of planning an attack here, even when they are overseas. Achmed is a dumbass lonesome 20-something here, but his handler, Ubermohammed, is pulling the strings, orchestrating supply, finance, connections, etc, from Pakistan.

              We drone Ubermohammed, and successfully prevent an attack here.

              1. I’m not entirely opposed to killing terrorists overseas that are plotting against us. And there’s no doubt that killing terrorists overseas who are plotting against us can and will make it less likely that they actually pull off a terrorist attack here in the USA.

                But the Obama Administration can stretch that elastic to mean anything they want. If they’re saying that they thwarted 50 terrorist attacks here in the USA, then they better have something better than some missile strikes in Pakistan to back that up.

                The Obama Administration is giving this as a justification, specifically, for tracking all of our phone calls. I’m not willing to give them a free pass on that–even if they did thwart 50 terrorist attacks. I’m certainly not such a coward that I would abandon my constitutional rights just because some terrorist attacked us.

                The terrorists are gonna have to do a lot worse than 9/11 before I sell my rights short.

                But a lot of my fellow Americans are cowards, and they will sell their constitutional rights short for the promise of security–and they seem to think that 50 terrorist plots against targets here in the U.S. were thwarted because they put us all under surveillance. And if all that surveillance is really doing is giving us yet more targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan to drone, then my fellow Americans need to know that.

                1. Oh I’m not defending it, just giving my interpretation on how they’re twisting the language to make it sound like what they want people to believe: that there were 50 major instances ready to blow up here that only Super Snooping prevented. And I completely agree with you that that interpretation is almost certainly horseshit.

        3. That is not who they are talking about. They mean 50 domestic plots.

          Says who? Where does it say that? When a shitweasel says ‘we thwarted 50 terrorist attacks’ you can be damn sure it doesn’t mean what a normal person means by ‘we thwarted 50 terrorist attacks’.

          Which is kinda what this post is about – they’re lying shitweasels and you gotta closely examine every word they say because their words don’t mean what you think they mean.

          For example – Bill Clinton: “I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinski.” Was he lying? No, he was pointedly speaking to Monica Lewinski and ‘that woman’ was an undefined woman. (Sort of like saying “I did not have sex with that woman, my dear.” ‘My dear’ is obviously the person being spoken to and ‘that woman’ is undefined.)

          1. “I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinski.”

            What he meant was that it wasn’t biological “sex”. It was a BJ.

            To everyone else in the world, that wasn’t the question. But he was a shitweasel. A shitweasel extraordinaire, so, no, technically, he did not have “sex” with that woman, Monica Lewinski.

            They stay up late every night thinking up new and better ways to say things that, while technically true, are incredibly misleading. And when we’re talking about classified information that we’re never going to get access to anyway*, there’s no reason to take their word for it.

            *sans Snowden Jr., anyway

  8. “… the extraordinary people at NSA, the real heroes, working alongside our partners within the Intelligence Community.”

    Holy fuckerballs, is there anyone who’s NOT a frickin’ “hero” these days?

    Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.
    Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.

    1. fuckerballs…I like that.

  9. We will provide important details about each of those ….

    Emphasis added. This is a basic sticking point for people’s ability to “just trust us”.

    Let, say, Judge Napolitano and Penn Jillette go behind closed doors, ask and have answered *to their satisfaction* unlimited questions, and then give thumbs up/down to the public.

  10. These people have zero credibility. They are admitted liars. There is no reason to believe anything they say, and ample reason not to.

    1. Well….yeah. But other than that, TOTALLY trustworthy. So, it’s all good!

  11. The NSA is a small price to pay for Gay Marriage.

    1. Only if the NSA breaks in on your conversations and tells you no, idiot, they wanted the other china pattern.

      1. *clenches fists, stomps feet, shakes head*

  12. The NSA also just admitted that it has been lying to the public the entire time. They took down a document describing the due process protections in place and released a statement basically admitting it was full of bullshit.

  13. Why is an activity member of the military also the head of a civilian intelligence agency? Why do we accept that?

    1. The NSA is actually part of the DOD, I believe.

  14. We need a gay NSA and IRS director. That will be a great for liberty and a quite fabulous one at that.

  15. “I don’t think I’m being a nitpicker when I say there’s a difference between “these programs, together with other intelligence, have protected the U.S. and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe” and “specific contribution of these programs to our understanding and, in many cases, disruption of terrorist plots.””

    I don’t either. Looks like you just called him on his BS.

  16. rigorous oversight

    Hahahahahahaha! It’s so rigorous they can’t share it with us. Without details this is pure BS.

    War is peace. Slavery is freedom.

    1. Exactly.
      “The check’s in the mail”, etc.
      You might believe it if the claim is made by someone with a decent rep, which certainly doesn’t include these assholes.

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