Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Did NSA snooping stop 'dozens' of terrorist attacks?

By Peter Bergen and David Sterman
June 18, 2013 -- Updated 1044 GMT (1844 HKT)
Former intelligence worker <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/10/politics/edward-snowden-profile/index.html'>Edward Snowden</a> revealed himself as the source of documents outlining a massive effort by the NSA to track cell phone calls and monitor the e-mail and Internet traffic of virtually all Americans. He says he just wanted the public to know what the government was doing. "Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded," he said. Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia after initially fleeing to Hong Kong. He has been charged with three felony counts, including violations of the U.S. Espionage Act, over the leaks. Former intelligence worker Edward Snowden revealed himself as the source of documents outlining a massive effort by the NSA to track cell phone calls and monitor the e-mail and Internet traffic of virtually all Americans. He says he just wanted the public to know what the government was doing. "Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded," he said. Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia after initially fleeing to Hong Kong. He has been charged with three felony counts, including violations of the U.S. Espionage Act, over the leaks.
HIDE CAPTION
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • National Security Agency chief says NSA has prevented "dozens of terrorist events"
  • Peter Bergen says publicly available information minimizes value of NSA surveillance
  • Bergen: Most effective weapons against terror are traditional law enforcement techniques

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and a director at the New America Foundation. David Sterman is a graduate student at Georgetown University's National Security Studies Program.

(CNN) -- Testifying before Congress on Wednesday, Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, asserted that his agency's massive acquisition of U.S. phone data and the contents of overseas Internet traffic that is provided by American tech companies has helped prevent "dozens of terrorist events."

On Thursday, Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, Democrats who both serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and have access to the nation's most sensitive secrets, released a statement contradicting this assertion. "Gen. Alexander's testimony yesterday suggested that the NSA's bulk phone records collection program helped thwart 'dozens' of terrorist attacks, but all of the plots that he mentioned appear to have been identified using other collection methods," the two senators said.

Indeed, a survey of court documents and media accounts of all the jihadist terrorist plots in the United States since 9/11 by the New America Foundation shows that traditional law enforcement methods have overwhelmingly played the most significant role in foiling terrorist attacks.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

This suggests that the NSA surveillance programs are wide-ranging fishing expeditions with little to show for them.

Alexander promised during his congressional testimony that during this coming week more information would be forthcoming about how the NSA surveillance programs have prevented many attacks.

A U.S. intelligence document provided to CNN by a congressional source over the weekend asserts that the dragnet of U.S. phone data and Internet information from overseas users "has contributed to the disruption of dozens of potential terrorist plots here in the homeland and in more than 20 countries around the world."

The public record, which is quite rich when it comes to jihadist terrorism cases, suggests that the NSA surveillance yielded little of major value to prevent numerous attacks in the United States, but government officials may be able to point to a number of attacks that were averted overseas.

That may not do much to dampen down the political firestorm that has gathered around the NSA surveillance programs. After all, these have been justified because they have supposedly helped to keep Americans safe at home.

NSA director: 'Dozens' of plots thwarted
Details on NSA-thwarted plots coming
Edward Snowden: Hide and seek
Is the NSA leaker a spy?

Homegrown jihadist extremists have mounted 42 plots to conduct attacks within the United States since 2001. Of those plots, nine involved an actual terrorist act that was not prevented by any type of government action, such as the failed attempt by Faisal Shahzad to blow up a car bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010.

Of the remaining 33 plots, the public record shows that at least 29 were uncovered by traditional law enforcement methods, such as the use of informants, reliance on community tips about suspicious activity and other standard policing practices.

Informants have played a critical role in preventing more than half of the plots by homegrown jihadist extremists since the 9/11 attacks, according to New America Foundation data. For instance, a group of Muslims from the Balkans living in southern New Jersey who were virulently opposed to the Iraq War told a government informant in 2007 they were plotting to kill soldiers stationed at the nearby Fort Dix army base.

Other investigations have relied on tips to law enforcement. Saudi student Khalid Aldawsari's plot to attack a variety of targets in Texas in 2011, including President George W. Bush's home in Dallas, was foiled when a company reported his attempt to buy chemicals suitable for making explosives.

Standard police work has also stopped plots. Kevin Lamar James, a convert to Islam, formed a group dedicated to holy war while he was jailed in California's Folsom Prison during the late 1990s. James' crew planned to attack a U.S. military recruiting station in Los Angeles on the fourth anniversary of 9/11 as well as a synagogue a month later.

Members of James' group financed their activities by sticking up gas stations, and their plans only came to light during the course of a routine investigation of a gas station robbery by local police in Torrance, California, who found documents that laid out the group's plans for mayhem.

In defending the role of NSA surveillance in his congressional testimony, Alexander pointed to two plots averted by his agency's programs; the plan by Denver resident Najibullah Zazi to bomb the New York subway system in 2009 and a plot the same year by Chicago resident David Coleman Headley to attack the offices of a Danish newspaper that had printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that many Muslims deemed offensive.

In the Zazi case, testimony in a Brooklyn court shows that around the eighth anniversary of 9/11, U.S. officials found an e-mail address in Pakistan, believed to be connected to al Qaeda, that was in communication with njbzaz@yahoo.com, an e-mail address in the Denver area.

Officials found that Zazi was e-mailing from njbzaz@yahoo.com to get clarification from his handlers in Pakistan about how to mix ingredients for the bombs he was building in his Denver apartment. Zazi was arrested before he could carry out his plan to attack the New York subways.

This plot could well have been detected by the NSA's PRISM program, which collects the e-mails and other records of computer users outside the United States from nine U.S. technology companies, including Yahoo. But the detection of the plot does not appear to have anything to do with the government's collection of the phone records of tens of millions of Americans.

In the case of Headley, the government hasn't clarified its claim that NSA surveillance led to his detection, but Sebastian Rotella of ProPublica, who has done the most authoritative reporting on the Headley case, says that Headley came to the attention of U.S. officials because he was in contact with al Qaeda operatives in the United Kingdom who were under surveillance by the British. In other words, Headley was not detected by NSA surveillance but because of a tip from a close ally.

Moreover, conventional law enforcement methods were available to detect Headley's ties to terrorism, but they were ignored. Headley's wife warned the FBI of his involvement with the Pakistani-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba years before his plot to attack the Danish newspaper.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1648 GMT (0048 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1542 GMT (2342 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT