Our Yemeni “Allies” Did More Damage than Edward Snowden

The NYT reports that some counterterrorism analysts think the reports of the Ayman al-Zawahiri call with Nasir al-Wuhayshi have done more damage to our SIGINT collections than all of Edward Snowden’s leaking.

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: the impact of a leaked terrorist plot by Al Qaeda in August has caused more immediate damage to American 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 Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda 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 the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.

[snip]

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 Mr. Snowden of the broad capabilities of N.S.A. surveillance programs. Instead of terrorists moving away from electronic communications after those disclosures, analysts have detected terrorists mainly talking about the information that Mr. Snowden has disclosed.

Reading between the lines, the story suggests one reason Snowden’s leaks haven’t hurt counterterrorism that badly is because they’re targeted at (or most effective with) non-terrorist targets.

Senior American officials say that Mr. Snowden’s disclosures have had a broader impact on national security in general, including counterterrorism efforts. This includes fears that Russia and China now have more technical details about the N.S.A. surveillance programs.

But I’m perhaps most interested in the way NYT points to McClatchy as the first report of the leak, not the NYT itself.

McClatchy Newspapers first reported on the conversations between Mr. Zawahri and Mr. Wuhayshi on Aug. 4. Two days before that, The New York Times agreed to withhold the identities of the Qaeda leaders after senior American intelligence officials said the information could jeopardize their operations. After the government became aware of the McClatchy article, it dropped its objections to The Times’s publishing the same information, and the newspaper did so on Aug. 5.

Remember, whereas the NYT sourced this leak to US officials, McClatchy very clearly sourced it to a Yemeni official. In fact, McClatchy’s editor, James Asher, said that the reporter (Adam Baron) said the intercept was “common knowledge” known in Yemen.

Our story was based on reporting in Yemen and we did not contact the administration to ask permission to use the information. In fact, our reporter tells me that the intercept was pretty much common knowledge in Yemen.

None of this excuses the US officials who leaked this to brag about the NSA’s capabilities at a politically sensitive time. (In fact, the intercept was discovered by an Air Force unit stationed at NSA’s Fort Meade.)

But even before that, someone in Yemen was leaking broadly enough about this intercept that it was “common knowledge.”

Which, given the divided loyalties of many within the Yemeni government may well mean AQAP got details of the intercept firsthand, not via McClatchy or NYT.

Those same Yemeni allies have long blabbed about our infiltration of AQAP. Now, apparently, they’ve alerted AQAP to the precise means of wiretapping them. Perhaps this should tell us something about those Yemeni allies?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

5 replies
  1. Clark Hilldale says:

    Marcy, when you apply your methodology to leaks (of which you have access to the actual documents) or government reports someone has obtained under FOIA, your ability to draw important conclusions is probably unprecedented on the internet.

    However, when you lend undue credulity to agenda-driven leaks by the IC to US media assets (not just today’s NYT piece, but the whole “embassy shutdown” theme) you cannot be expected to draw valid conclusions. You are attempting the impossible.

    The best one can do is diagnose that there is a deception operation in play. You cannot mine this stuff for meaning, except at the most macro scale.

  2. John says:

    (In fact, the intercept was discovered by an Air Force unit stationed at NSA’s Fort Meade.)

    If this intercept *was* discovered by an Air Force unit, what are all the well-paid private contractors actually doing for their money?

    Other than eavesdrop on fourteen-year-old girls sexting with their boyfriends, that is?

  3. orionATL says:

    if “lots” of yemenis new about the intercept (more likely, about the planning for a grand assault on imperialists),

    wouldn’t it follow that our astute, observant american intelligence operatives within the embassy and operating elsewhere in yemen would have heard of it too? and have passed it on, post haste.

    why then would the whouse object to nytimes publication? what purpose would it serve for yeminis but not americans to know about this? all the more since the story had “good nsa” written all over it and hence was valuable pro-nsa p.r./propaganda.

  4. bevin says:

    I’m inclined to Clark’s conclusion. Everything about this story smells suspiciously of crude PR.
    The truth about Yemen is that if there were an AQ in the Arabian Peninsula it would be working for, rather than against the Sa’ana regime which both the US and Saudi Arabia back.
    It really beggars belief that Prince Bandar’s A.Q. forces in Iraq and Syria are working for the Saudi-US axis whereas, in Yemen, in which the Saudis virtually invented AQ to fight the Nasserites in the 60s, they are working against it.
    The real opposition in Yemen is composed of un-coalesced, shia, marxists, nasserite nationalists and regionalists (or tribalists as so many like to call them).

  5. What Constitution? says:

    By the, it’s also true that James Clapper and General Alexander have done more “damage” to America than Edward Snowden has. Just sayin’. Had either of them been more candid and more honest, we might have legal, ethical and responsive intelligence agencies whose operations were not the subject of a global debate and loss of credibility for our entire government on an international scope.

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