What We Know and Still Don't Know About the Embassy Closures

Six days after the government announced and later extended the closure of various U.S. Embassies around the world, we seem to be less clear than ever on how and why those closures came about.

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Six days after the government announced and later extended the closure of various U.S. Embassies around the world, we seem to be less clear than ever on how those closures came about.

How did we learn about the terror threat?

Through its official channels, the government isn't saying much. Through its unofficial channels — what would be called leaks in another context — we know a bit more.

Over the weekend, McClatchy reported that the closures were the result of "an intercepted communication between Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri in which Zawahiri gave 'clear orders' to al-Wuhaysi."

On Wednesday, The Daily Beast suggested that wasn't the entire story — or, rather, it wasn't the only intelligence. Eli Lake reported that the intelligence came from a conference call.

The Daily Beast has learned that the discussion between the two al Qaeda leaders happened in a conference call that included the leaders or representatives of the top leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates calling in from different locations, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence. …

An earlier communication between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi delivered through a courier was picked up last month, according to three U.S. intelligence officials. But the conference call provided a new sense of urgency for the U.S. government, the sources said.

The discovery last month is echoed by the Associated Press in a story published Monday.

A U.S. intelligence official and a Mideast diplomat said al-Zawahri’s message was picked up several weeks ago and appeared to initially target Yemeni interests. The threat was expanded to include American or other Western sites abroad, officials said, indicating the target could be a single embassy, a number of posts or some other site.

Wednesday morning, the BBC reported that a plot targeting Yemeni sites was disrupted.

Which conversation or communique included the information that aroused so much concern — and what that information is — isn't clear. What is clear is that the administration is fine with the topic being discussed.

Update, 3:00 p.m.: Gawker notes some skepticism among journalists and experts about the Daily Beast report.

Was this intelligence the result of NSA surveillance?

The AP article cited above included another detail: the NSA wasn't involved in uncovering the tip.

Officials in the U.S. wouldn’t say who intercepted the initial suspect communications — the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency or one of the other intelligence agencies — that kicked off the sweeping pre-emptive closure of U.S. facilities. But an intelligence official said the controversial NSA programs that gather data on American phone calls or track Internet communications with suspected terrorists played no part in detecting the initial tip.

That contradicts statements made on Meet the Press by Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. "I will say," he told NBC's David Gregory, "that it's the 702 Program that has allowed us to pick up on this chatter. That's the program that allows us to listen overseas. Not on a domestic soil, but overseas."

The "702 program" refers to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the act under which the NSA gains the authority to surveil foreign targets. The leaked minimization procedures outlining how the NSA collects intelligence under Section 702 included the agency's authorization to share data with other agencies as needed, including the CIA and FBI.

On The Tonight Show on Tuesday, the president was far more circumspect. Host Jay Leno asked Obama directly whether or not the NSA surveillance was involved. Obama pivoted on the question.

Well, this intelligence-gathering that we do is a critical component of counterterrorism. And obviously, with Mr. Snowden and the disclosures of classified information, this raised a lot of questions for people. But what I said as soon as it happened I continue to believe in, which is a lot of these programs were put in place before I came in.

In other words: I'd rather talk about something else.

Why were these embassies the ones that closed?

Another McClatchy report released Wednesday included interviews with experts who speculated on the unusual diversity of the embassy closures (mapped above). It first quoted State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, who told reporters on Tuesday that “We make decisions post by post. That’s something that is constantly evaluated at a high level through the interagency process.”

There’s general agreement that the diffuse list of potential targets has to do with either specific connections authorities are tracking, or places that might lack the defenses to ward off an attack. Beyond that, however, even the experts are stumped. …

“It’s crazy pants — you can quote me,” said Will McCants, a former State Department adviser on counterterrorism who this month joins the Brookings Saban Center as the director of its project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world.

On The Tonight Show, Obama didn't offer any insight on this, either.

[T]hese diplomats, they go out there and they serve every day. Oftentimes, they have their families with them. They do an incredible job and sometimes don’t get enough credit. So we’re grateful to them and we’ve got to do everything we can to protect them.

The audience applauded, and that was that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.