the intelligence community’s attempts to blame NSA
whistleblower Edward Snowden for the tragic attacks in
Paris on Friday, the NSA’s mass surveillance programs do
not have a track record — before or after Snowden — of
identifying or thwarting actual large-scale terrorist
Director John Brennan asserted
on Monday that “many of these
terrorist operations are uncovered and thwarted before
they’re able to be carried out,” and lamented the
post-Snowden “handwringing” that has made that job more
the reason there haven’t been any large-scale terror
attacks by ISIS in the U.S. is not because they were
averted by the intelligence community, but because — with
the possible exception of one that was foiled by local
police — none were actually planned.
even before Snowden, the NSA wasn’t able to provide a
single substantiated example of its surveillance dragnet
preventing any domestic attack at all.
recent history of terror arrests linked to ISIS is
documented in an internal unclassified Department of
Homeland Security document provided
It shows that terror arrests between January 2014 and
September 2015 linked to ISIS were largely of people
trying to travel abroad, provide material support, or plan
attacks that were essentially imaginary.
document, dated before the Paris attacks, includes a list
and map of 64 U.S. persons arrested on terror-related
charges over the course of nine months who were “assessed
to be inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant,” or ISIS.
document assigns six categories to types of arrests made
in the given time period: a foiled attack, “aspirational”
planning, “advanced attack plotting,” failed travel,
travel, or material support.
only foiled attack involved the
arrests of Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, who traveled
from Arizona to Garland, Texas, bearing assault weapons
and body armor, intending to shoot up an art contest
involving the drawing of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Both attackers were shot by local police officers.
are just five instances of what the report’s authors call
“advanced attack plotting” — two of which involve the FBI
providing assistance in planning or acquiring supplies for
an attack before making an arrest.
Suarez, a 23-year-old from Florida, had been posting
on Facebook about his support for ISIS when an undercover
FBI agent started communicating with him, eventually about
a “timer bomb” he wanted to construct and detonate on a
public beach in Key West. Suarez asked the undercover
agent if he knew how to assemble a bomb, and the agent
agreed to get what he needed, subsequently goading him by
asking if he was “true to the Islamic State” or “just
playing games.” Suarez paid the FBI agent for the
materials to assemble the bomb, and the agent taught him
how to detonate it. When he tried to carry out the attack,
he was arrested. His attorneys described him as “troubled
and confused” in a statement.
FBI agent also provided a
fake explosive device to John T. Booker, a 20-year-old
Kansas man who was indicted for attempting to use a weapon
of mass destruction.
Cornell, a 20-year-old from Ohio, started posting on
Twitter under an alias about his support for ISIS when
someone in contact with Cornell agreed to be an FBI
informant. Cornell talked about attacking the U.S.
Capitol. But his
father saidit was the FBI that was “taking him
somewhere, and they were filling his head with a lot of
Omar Saleh, a New York college student, was
arrested after trying to stab
federal officers executing a search warrant at his home.
The FBI said he and a co-conspirator discussed setting off
a pressure-cooker bomb in New York, but no such charge was
Rahim, a 26-year-old Boston man, was killed by
police officers when he was stopped for questioning after
allegedly threatening them with a knife. He had been
posting ISIS-inspired social media messages, and had
threatened to kill Pamela Geller, the host of the Garland,
Texas, Muhammad cartoon contest. Law enforcement sources
called that plot a “fantasy,” but said his second plan, to
kill cops, was more believable.
were 12 examples of “aspirational” plots, or even less
advanced plans to commit attacks.
were 30 arrests involving people who were trying to travel
to join up with ISIS, most of whom failed, and 15 of
people attempting to provide some sort of “material
hardly a record of averting major ISIS attacks on the
fact, there’s no evidence that the NSA’s extraordinary
surveillance dragnet, as revealed by Snowden, has
disrupted any major attack within the U.S. ever.
U.S. government initially responded to Snowden’s
disclosures in 2013 by suggesting that he had irreparably
damaged valuable, life-saving capabilities. Two weeks
after the media first reported on Snowden’s leaks,
President Barack Obama said that
the NSA “averted … at least 50 threats … because of this
information,” gathered through communications collection
in the United States and abroad.
of Congress and the administration alike subsequently
repeated that claim, upping the total to 54 attacks
only 13 of the 54 cases “had some nexus to the U.S.,”
Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a Senate Judiciary
Committee hearing in October 2013. And they were not all
terror “plots”; a majority involved providing “material
support,” like money, to foreign terror organizations.
Director Keith Alexander was forced to dial back the
rhetoric, eventually saying only that the intelligence
programs “contributed to our understanding” and “helped
enable the disruption of terrorist plots.”
only incident the NSA has ever disclosed in which its
domestic metadata collection program played a key role
involved a San Diego man who was convicted
of transferring $8,500 to al Shabaab in Somalia — the
terror group responsible for a mass shooting at a mall in
Kenya. And the metadata program is the only one that has
been reigned in since the Snowden disclosures.
three other terrorism cases the NSA cited as warrantless
surveillance success stories were debunked. Either the
have gotten a warrant, or it received a tip from British
intelligence, or it was a case of fraud,
White House panel concluded in
December 2013 that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’
telephone information was “not essential in preventing
attacks.” A member of the panel took it one step further,
when he told NBC News that there were no examples of the
NSA stopping “any [terror attacks] that might have been
really big” using the program.