2 Agents 3 Hours a Day Weren’t REALLY Reading Anwar al-Awlaki’s Email

Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin wants you to believe the NSA wasn’t really reading Anwar al-Awlaki’s communications content, on whose emails (including the web-based ones) the NSA had a full-time tap at least as early as March 16, 2008.

In my experience, NSA analysts err on the side of caution before touching any data having to do with U.S. citizens. In 2010, at the request of then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, I chaired a panel investigating the intelligence community’s failure to be aware of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber” who tried to blow up a commercial plane over Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009.

The overall report remains classified, but I can say that the government lost vital time because of the extraordinary care the NSA and others took in handling any data involving a “U.S. person.” (Abdulmutallab, a Ni­ger­ian, was recruited and trained by the late Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen based in Yemen.)

And maybe that’s the case.

Except it doesn’t seem to square with the report that two FBI Agents were spending 3 hours a day each reading Awlaki’s mail. It doesn’t seem to accord with the efforts those Agents made to chase down the Nidal Hasan lead — which, after all, infringed on the privacy of two American citizens, against one of whom probable cause had not been established. You’d think it would be far easier to chase down the Abdulmutallab messages, particularly given what has been portrayed as more clearly operational content, given that Abdulmutallab would have gotten no protection as a US person.

Sure, those Agents complained about the “crushing” volume of the communications content they had to review every day, but that was a factor of volume, not any restrictions on reading FISA target Anwar al-Awlaki’s email.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled someone has raised Abdulmutallab in the context of assessing NSA’s dragnet, which I’ve been calling for since October.

UndieBomb 1.0 was the guy who was allegedly plotting out Jihad with Anwar al-Awlaki — whose communications the FBI had two guys reading – over things like chats and calls. That is, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a guy whose plot the NSA and FBI should have thwarted before he got on a plane. (To say nothing of the CIA and NCTC’s fuck-ups.)

And yet, he got on that plane. His own incompetence and the quick work of passengers prevented that explosion, while a number of needles went unnoticed in the NSA’s most closely watched haystacks.

Nevertheless, the lesson DiFi takes is that we need more haystacks.

Shouldn’t the lessons of UndieBomb 1.0 be just as important to this debate as the partial, distorted, lessons of 9/11?

(I’ve also been wondering why Faisal Shahzad, who was getting instructions, including hawala notice, from known targets of drone strikes in Pakistan, before his attack, wasn’t identified by phone and Internet dragnet analysis as a person of interest through those contacts, though that may legitimately be because of turmoil in both dragnet programs.)

But for McLaughlin’s claims to be true then the description of the treatment of the Awlaki wiretaps in the Webster report on the Nidal Hasan investigation wouldn’t seem to make sense.

By all means, let’s hear what really happened back between 2008 and 2010, when the NSA missed multiple contacts with top AQAP targets and TTP targets and as a result missed two of the three main international terrorist attacks on this country since 9/11. That should be part of the debate.

But let’s be very clear whether it was really limits on US person data, when we see FBI reading content of two US persons directly, or rather the sheer volume we’re collecting (as well as the crappy computer systems FBI had in place in 2009) that caused the dragnet to fail.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

6 replies
  1. Don Bacon says:

    NSA analysts err on the side of caution

    I’m sure they don’t err often, though. Who does? So they’re incautious and avoid error, of course.

    When they’re bad they’re very, very good, but when they’re good, they’re horrid.

  2. P J Evans says:

    The sheer volume seems much more likely as a problem. Building more and bigger (if not better) haystacks is not a good idea.

  3. Clark Hilldale says:

    Of course, the explanation why NSA chronically misses statutorily permissible terrorist targets may be what Snowden has been insinuating all along.

    That the mass dragnets are not for counter-terrorism per se, but for other purposes – likely including political surveillance.

  4. Jeff A. Taylor says:

    @Clark Hilldale:

    As I’ve been saying since the Snowden docs disclosed the massive scale of data collection, the primary purpose of such a dragnet is the creation of informants. We cannot shy away from this any longer.

    2014 needs to be the Year of the Informant. We need to talk about it, understand it, and encourage informants to come forward with pledge of civil amnesty of sorts because they are surely being threatened with government prosecution should they reveal the next level of StasiUSA operations.

  5. Les says:

    Why would they need to read his email if he were an informant or a magnet for stupid zealots? Just tracking his contacts would give the US a list of prospective targets. I’d say they let him leave the country with the hope he would lead them to the South Yemen resistance and the expectation that he would bring out low-level jihadis out of the woodwork. This was confirmed by the remarks made by the late Omar Hammami regarding foreign jihadists who approached Al-Shabaab. They were all undercover agents or informants.

  6. scribe says:

    How much email could these agents have had to read? I mean, two guys x 3 hours a day is a lot of time to spend on email reading for one guy even if you’re doing the contact chaining, topical/subject tagging and all the rest of the analysis by hand. A lot of that is semi-automated even if the USG is using even the most rudimentary email-review programs.

    And, more to the point, how much email could he have been writing? It takes time to compose anything and creating enough emails to keep two guys busy 3 hours a day would take a Stakhanovite email writer. And from what I’ve seen so far, al-Awlaki had more pressing issues on his mind. Like staying alive.

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