Analysts: Leak of terror plot hurt NSA most

  • New York Times
  • September 29, 2013 - 9:55 PM

– As the nation’s spy agencies assess the fallout from disclosures about their surveillance programs, some government analysts and senior officials have made a startling finding: A leaked terrorist plot by Al-Qaida in August has caused more immediate damage to U.S. counterterrorism efforts than the thousands of classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.

Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al-Qaida, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior U.S. officials have been scrambling to find new ways to tap into the electronic messages and conversations of Al-Qaida’s leaders and operatives.

“The switches weren’t turned off, but there has been a real decrease in quality” of communications, said one U.S. official, who like others quoted spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence programs.

The drop in message traffic after the communication intercepts contrasts with what analysts describe as a far more muted impact on counterterrorism efforts from the disclosures by Snowden of the broad capabilities of NSA surveillance programs.

Instead of terrorists moving away from electronic communications after those disclosures, analysts have detected terrorists mainly talking about the information that Snowden has disclosed.

Senior U.S. officials say Snowden’s disclosures have had a broader effect on national security in general, including counterterrorism efforts.

This includes fears that Russia and China now have more technical details about the NSA surveillance programs, as well as damaged diplomatic ties, like the decision by Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, to postpone a state visit to the United States in protest over revelations that the agency spied on her, her top aides and Brazil’s largest company, the oil giant Petrobras.

The communication intercepts between al-Zawahri and Wuhayshi revealed what U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers have described as one of the most serious plots against American and Western interests since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It prompted the closure of 19 U.S. embassies and consulates for a week, when the authorities ultimately concluded that the plot focused on the embassy in Yemen.

McClatchy Newspapers first reported on the conversations between Al-Zawahri and Wuhayshi on Aug. 4. Two days before that, the New York Times agreed to withhold the identities of the Al-Qaida leaders after senior U.S. intelligence officials said the information could jeopardize their operations.

After the government learned of the McClatchy article, it dropped its objections to the Times’ publishing the same information, and the newspaper did so on Aug. 5.

In recent months, senior administration officials — including the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr. — have drawn attention to the damage that Snowden’s revelations have done, although most have been addressing the effect on national security more broadly, not just the effect on counterterrorism.

“We have seen, in response to the Snowden leaks, Al-Qaida and affiliated groups seeking to change their tactics, looking to see what they can learn from what is in the press and seek to change how they communicate to avoid detection,” Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a security conference in Aspen, Colo., in July.

U.S. counterterrorism officials say they believe the disclosure about the Al-Qaida plot has had a significant effect because it was a specific event that signaled to terrorists that a main communication network that the group’s leaders were using was being monitored. The sharpest decline in messaging has been among the Al-Qaida operatives in Yemen, officials said. The disclosures from Snowden have not had such specificity about terrorist communications networks that the government is monitoring, they said.

“It was something that was immediate, direct and involved specific people on specific communications about specific events,” one senior U.S. official said of the exchange between the Al-Qaida leaders. “The Snowden stuff is layered and layered, and it will take a lot of time to understand it. There wasn’t a sudden drop-off from it. A lot of these guys think that they are not impacted by it, and it is difficult stuff for them to understand.”

Other senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials offer a dissenting view, saying it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the effect of the messages between the Al-Qaida leaders from Snowden’s overall disclosures, and that the decline is more likely a combination of the two.

“The bad guys are just not going to talk operational planning electronically,” said one senior counterterrorism official.

Over the past decade, the NSA has invested billions of dollars in a clandestine campaign to preserve its ability to eavesdrop. The agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive such data as trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world, according to documents provided by Snowden.

The government’s greatest fear concerning its counterterrorism operations is that over the next several months, the level of intercepted communications will continue to fall as terrorists likely find new ways to communicate, one senior U.S. official said.

It will likely take the NSA some time to break into those methods and monitor communications.

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