The Embassy Closures Prove Everyone's Point on NSA Surveillance

In light of the nebulous warnings from the State Department about embassy closures and travel warnings, everyone with an opinion on domestic surveillance has declared himself proven right. Congratulations all around.

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In light of characteristically nebulous warnings from the State Department about the extended closure of American embassies (map at right) and warnings about foreign travel, everyone with an opinion on domestic surveillance has declared himself proven right. Congratulations all around.

They prove that NSA surveillance is important. Appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia explained what prompted the alerts.

These programs are controversial, we understand that, they're very sensitive, but they're also very important because they're what allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter that I referred to. If we did not have these programs, then we simply wouldn't be able to listen in on the bad guys.

And I will say 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. And that's where all the planning is taking place, we think that's where the activities is planned for. So yes, these programs, even though they're controversial, this is a good indication of why they're so important.

There you go. So important it's worth mentioning twice.

Note that Chambliss calls out the "702 Program," the section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows the NSA (with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's sign-off) to monitor online communications of non-Americans. (Think: PRISM.) This is different then Section 215 surveillance, which is the part of the Patriot Act that the NSA and FBI use as justification for the universal collection of metadata on domestic phone calls. Section 215 authority is the one for which Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan tried to block funding.

They prove that NSA surveillance isn't important. That Section 215 authority came up during a classified briefing between the White House and members of Congress at some point recently, as Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois noted on that same program. Even in light of the new terror alerts, Durbin didn't rush to defend metadata collection.

In other words, do we need to collect all of the phone records of all of the people living in America for five years so that if we're going to target one particular person, we're ready to jump on it. That is being discussed and debated. The president is open to suggestions to make this stronger and more responsive and transparent.

On CNN, Rep. Adam Schiff of California went a step further.

“If you look at the one that’s most at issue here, and that’s the bulk metadata program, there’s no indication, unless I’m proved wrong later, that that program, which collects vast amounts of domestic data, domestic telephone data, contributed to information about this particular plot,” he said.

The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald responded to Chambliss' claims on Democracy Now.

[T]he only thing that the warning has to do with the current controversy is that the argument that a lot of analysts have made, very persuasively, is that when you have an agency that collects everything, it actually becomes harder, not easier, to detect actual terrorist plots and to find the actual terrorists. And if this agency really were devoted, if these surveillance programs were really devoted to finding terrorism, they would be much more directed and discriminating. But they’re not. They’re indiscriminate and limitless, and that’s one of the problems.

They prove that the Snowden leaks weren't damaging to surveillance. One of the ways in which the NSA pushed back on the Amash amendment to defund 215 metadata collection was by arguing that the Snowden leaks had already damaged the agency's ability to detect terror threats. Salon's Alex Pareene asks the natural follow-up:

If the American intelligence community was crippled by the recent leaks about its operations and tools, as so many have claimed, how did they manage to collect the intelligence that led to this alert? …

So maybe comrade Snowden’s leaks didn’t cripple the NSA? Perhaps the NSA, and our other intelligence-gathering agencies, can still monitor the communications of terrorist organizations despite the fact that people know that our intelligence-gathering agencies are trying to monitor the communications of terrorist organizations.

They prove that the White House is politicizing the data leaks. Greenwald also made this point on Democracy Now.

For eight straight years, literally, Democrats … would accuse the United States government and the national security state of exaggerating terrorism threats, of manipulating advisories, of hyping the dangers of al-Qaeda, in order to distract attention away from their abuses and to scare the population into submitting to whatever it is they wanted to do. And so … suddenly an administration that has spent two years claiming that it has decimated al-Qaeda decides that there is this massive threat that involves the closing of embassies and consulates throughout the world.

Greenwald was joined by the privacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center, as The Guardian reported.

"The NSA takes in threat information every day. You have to ask, why now? What makes this information different?" added [EPIC attorney Amie] Stepanovich.

"Too much of what we hear from the government about surveillance is either speculation or sweeping assertions that lack corroboration. The question isn't if these programs used by this NSA can find legitimate threats, it's if the same threats couldn't be discovered in a less invasive manner. This situation fails to justify the NSA's unchecked access to our personal information."

The conspiracy theorists at had a surprisingly qualified take on this argument, offering that people "take the claim that the new terror warnings justify NSA spying with a wee grain of salt."

They prove that Obama messed up on al Qaeda. To Greenwald's point above, the admission that Al Qaeda poses an imminent threat to American facilities is something of a departure from the administration's election-year arguments that al Qaeda was severely weakened. Which gave Bush's Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff an opportunity, which he took on This Week.

"In many ways it's more dangerous, because now we have what I call 2.0 or 3.0, which is widely dispersed, a younger generation coming up with new ideas, not necessarily repeating what did in the past. … And we now see them all the way from West Africa into South Asia. And so there's a much broader battlefield."

They prove that Benghazi was important. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina took the opportunity to return to his old hobbyhorse: the administration's failure to prevent the murder of ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi last September 11th. He spoke on CNN.

“They attacked our consulate, they killed an ambassador, a year has passed, and nobody has paid a price. After Benghazi, these al Qaeda types are really on steroids thinking we’re weaker and they’re stronger.”

A final note: If your argument for or against the administration or NSA surveillance isn't included above, please point us to your blog post / Sunday morning talk show segment elucidating it.

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