NSA Propagandist John Schindler Suggests Boston Marathon Terrorist Attack Not “Major Jihadist Attack”

NSA propagandist John Schindler has used the San Bernardino attack as an opportunity to blame Edward Snowden for the spy world’s diminished effectiveness, again.

Perhaps the most interesting detail in his column is his claim that 80% of thwarted attacks come from an NSA SIGINT hit.

Something like eighty percent of disrupted terrorism cases in the United States begin with a SIGINT “hit” by NSA.

That’s mighty curious, given that defendants in these cases aren’t getting notice of such SIGINT hits, as required by law, as ACLU’s Patrick Toomey reminded just last week. Indeed, the claim is wholly inconsistent with the claims FBI made when it tried to claim the dragnet was effective after the Snowden leaks, and inconsistent with PCLOB’s findings that the FBI generally finds such intelligence on its own. Whatever. I’m sure the discrepancy is one Schindler will be able to explain to defense attorneys when they subpoena him to explain the claim.

Then there’s Schindler’s entirely illogical claim that the shut-down of the phone dragnet just days before the attack might have helped to prevent it.

The recent Congressionally-mandated halt on NSA holding phone call information, so-called metadata, has harmed counterterrorism, though to what extent remains unclear. FBI Director James Comey has stated, “We don’t know yet” whether the curtailing of NSA’s metadata program, which went into effect just days before the San Bernardino attack, would have made a difference. Anti-intelligence activists have predictably said it’s irrelevant, while some on the Right have made opposite claims. The latter have overstated their case but are closer to the truth.

As Mike Lee patiently got Jim Comey to admit last week, if the Section 215 phone dragnet (as opposed to the EO 12333 phone dragnet, which remains in place) was going to prevent this attack, it would have.

Schindler then made an error that obscures one of the many ways the new phone dragnet will be better suited to counterterrorism. Echoing a right wing complaint that the government doesn’t currently review social media accounts as part of the visa process, he claimed “Tashfeen Malik’s social media writings [supporting jihad] could have been easily found.” Yet at least according to ABC, it would not have been so easy. “Officials said that because Malik used a pseudonym in her online messages, it is not clear that her support for terror groups would have become known even if the U.S. conducted a full review of her online traffic.” [See update.] Indeed, authorities found the Facebook post where Malik claimed allegiance to ISIS by correlating her known email with her then unknown alias on Facebook. NSA’s new phone program, because it asks providers for “connections” as well as “contacts,” is far more likely to identify multiple identities that get linked by providers than the old program (though it is less likely to correlate burner identities via bulk analysis).

Really, though, whether or not the dragnet could have prevented San Bernardino which, as far as is evident, was carried out with no international coordination, is sort of a meaningless measure of NSA’s spying. To suggest you’re going to get useful SIGINT about a couple who, after all lived together and therefore didn’t need to use electronic communications devices to plot, is silliness. A number of recent terrorist attacks have been planned by family members, including one cell of the Paris attack and the Charlie Hebdo attack, and you’re far less likely to get SIGINT from people who live together.

Which brings me to the most amazing part of Schindler’s piece. He argues that Americans have developed a sense of security in recent years (he of course ignores right wing terrorism and other gun violence) because “the NSA-FBI combination had a near-perfect track record of cutting short major jihadist attacks on Americans at home since late 2001.” Here’s how he makes that claim.

Making matters worse, most Americans felt reasonably safe from the threat of domestic jihadism in recent years, despite repeated warnings about the rise of the Islamic State and terrible attacks like the recent mass-casualty atrocity in Paris. Although the November 2009 Fort Hood massacre, perpetrated by Army Major Nidal Hasan, killed thirteen, it happened within the confines of a military base and did not involve the general public.

Two months before that, authorities rolled up a major jihadist cell in the New York City area that was plotting complex attacks that would have rivalled the 2005 London 7/7 atrocity in scope and lethality. That plot was backed by Al-Qa’ida Central in Pakistan and might have changed the debate on terrorism in the United States, but it was happily halted before execution – “left of boom” as counterterrorism professionals put it.

Jumping from the 2009 attacks (and skipping the 2009 Undiebomb and 2010 Faisal Shahzad attempts) to the Paris attack allows him to suggest any failure to find recent plots derives from Snowden’s leaks, which first started in June 2013.

However, the effectiveness of the NSA-FBI counterterrorism team has begun to erode in the last couple years, thanks in no small part to the work of such journalists-cum-activists. Since June 2013, when the former NSA IT contactor [sic] Edward Snowden defected to Moscow, leaking the biggest trove of classified material in all intelligence history, American SIGINT has been subjected to unprecedented criticism and scrutiny.

There is, of course, one enormous thing missing from Schindler’s narrative of NSA perfection: the Boston Marathon attack, committed months before the first Snowden disclosures became public. Indeed, even though the NSA was bizarrely not included in a post-Marathon Inspector General review of how the brothers got missed, it turns out NSA did have intelligence on them (Tamerlan Tsarnaev was in international contact with known extremists and also downloaded AQAP’s Inspire magazine repeatedly). Only, that intelligence got missed, even with the multiple warnings from FSB about Tamerlan.

Perhaps Schindler thinks that Snowden retroactively caused the NSA to overlook the intelligence on Tamerlan Tsarnaev? Perhaps Schindler doesn’t consider an attack that killed 3 and injured 260 people a “major jihadist attack”?

It’s very confusing, because I thought the Boston attack was a major terrorist attack, but I guess right wing propagandists trying to score points out of tragedy can ignore such things if it will spoil their tale of perfection.

Update: LAT reports that Malik’s Facebook posts were also private, on top of being written under a pseudonym. Oh, and also in Urdu, a language the NSA has too few translators in. The NSA (but definitely not the State Department) does have the ability to 1) correlate IDs to identify pseudonyms, 2) require providers to turn over private messages — they could use PRISM and 3) translate Urdu to English. But this would be very resources intensive and as soon as State made it a visa requirement, anyone trying to could probably thwart the correlation process.

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.

25 replies
  1. IAN TURNER says:

    Marcy:
    .
    A question about John Schindler’s accuracy in acting as an advocate for the NSA etc etc.if I may.
    .
    You have pointed out he had chosen to overlook the Boston Marathon attack in order to “make his point”.
    .
    In an earlier comment on one of your posts about ex-Secy of State Clinton’s email files containing/not containing Open Source Info v Classified info a commenter of your post had provided a link to Schindler’s own blog site when on Aug 16,2015 Schindler had created a fictional “heavily-classified-report-as-drafted-by-the-staff-of-the-IC” to show how Secretary of State Clinton would have been receiving governmental reports on her private server.
    .
    I had added my 2 cents worth by comparing the style Schindler was describing with numerous classification levels & DISCLOSING THE METHOD OF COLLECTING THE INFORMATION IN THE CLASSIFICATION LEVEL [e.g. this info comes from source TK=Talent Keyhole-a satellite] in the actual message passed to intel users——-with the practices & procedures the US[& British & Canadian & Australian & New Zealand] Armed Forces & senior political figures used when handling decrypted [& thus heavily classified] German,Japanese,& Italian messages during WWII where such MIXING OF SOURCE & CONTENT OF MESSAGE WAS ABSOLUTELY PROHIBITED for obvious reasons.
    .
    At the time my surprise was in finding the USA’s IC had ignored their own WWII experience—IF SCHINDLERS “fictional” report was accurate.
    .
    Does anyone know whether that “fictional” reporting style was an accurate representation of current USA IC practice—-or was he making that story up also to annoy[ex-]Secy of State Clinton with her private email server?
    .
    The link was:
    http://20committee.com/2015/08/16/hillarys-emailgate-understanding-security-classification/

    • emptywheel says:

      If I understand your question correctly, he was pretending these were reports when they were basically casual emails. So they wouldn’t fall under any rules of reporting. (But also, as it turns out, could and did come from different sources, in some cases public reporting.)

  2. Evangelista says:

    Neither the Boston Marathon bombing or the San Bernardino shootings were “terrorist attacks”. Both were Reactive Violence actions. In this they were equivalent to school-shootings by students or persons disgruntled for one reason or another, from Columbine to Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and so on, but, evidence indicates, not the Roseburg Oregon shooting, whose perpetrator appears to have been a ‘copycat’ looney. They are also equivlent to the Nevada shooting of police uniforms (which killed the people in them) by the couple pushed out for instability by the Cliven Bundy group. The Major Hasan shooting at Fort Hood, whether or not it might count statistically as having killed people (since the Major only delivered “soldier’s pay” to soldiers), was also a reactive violence incident, the Major having changed tactics after making a civilized presentation attempting to provide perspective on Muslim perspective, which was dismissed with disparagement with no consideration for being defined irrelevant for being about Muslims (the effort to communicate, which can be found online, and the reaction provide a classic psychological study of frustration and frustration-response generation, better than the Virginia Tech case,whose perpetrator appears not as stable as Hasan, and should be studied by persons with sincere interests in stabilizing pluralist societies).

    The bombing of the Boston Marathon, a festive American congregation of civilians, and the San Bernardino shooting of a festive gathering of American civilians, are both particular in that both are clearly and unmistakably responses to the United States’ Drone Assassination Program and apparent American indifference to mass murderings of civilians, especially ones engaged in what anyone would think would be very obviously festive-occasion activities.

    The reactive violence aspect of American overseas terorist activities is being actively ignored by American media and American officials. The terrorization component of armed drone operations, the buzz of propeller-driven aircraft high overhead as a constant component, from which periodically come, and at any time may come, a crowd-dispersing (in piecemeal fashion) explosive eruption is also actively non-referenced by American officials and media. Both are passively, or dismissively, ignored by the American population. The total ignoring makes the whole of the American population apparently complicit in the perceptions of persons to whom the perceivedly condoned terrorizing and random murdering activities are recognized wrongdoing and irrational aggressions. They are equivalent to, for example, the random shooting of plains-Indians from trains, for “target-practice” and “sport” in the American West in the latter part of the 19th century, which resulted in “Terrorist attack” seeming equivalent reactive violence actions, also the 20th century McVeigh response to Waco and Ruby Ridge officially condoned and carried out terrorizings.

    Most who identify with, or as victims of American style, “superior” culture terrorising attempt to get on in spite of the irritation. Numbers of ones amongst them, however, in every population, wind up to, or reach, a ‘suicidal’ breaking point, at which they either launch, or plan and launch, a ‘responsive strike’ violent reaction. It is human nature, and it is a net positive human characteristic, because the ‘irrational’ violent reaction tendency is what prevents coercive-compulsion from working and so becoming a workable societal control. The violence will increase and become less and less “fringe” as the coercive attempt to compell self-control.

    Note: While the Paris attack has indications of apparent elements of reactive violence attack instigation at the personal level (impelling individuals to take part), it has too many appearances of instigation (compare to U.S. cases of FBI manipulations of youth to insitgate them to reckless and excessive reactive actions, and conjecture ones of those being finished with furnishment of active devices and operable weapons, instead of dummies) to be defined not a purposed, or manipulated, attack action, as the video evidences proof the Charlie Hebdo shooting incident to have been.

  3. orionATL says:

    it’s on a little off topic, but i want to point out an obvious,

    an obvious that is never publicly stated directly:

    goole is a spy.

    google is a spying organization.

    google makes money off of spying on its customers.

    that is all.

    • bloopie2 says:

      Hmm. They think I’m an informant. Or I’ve never done bad things before. Or I live with my co-conspirators. Or I work alone. Or I speak in tongues. Or I use false names (like everyone else on the Internet). Or I stick close to home. One could probably apply two or three of those to most every shooter/bomber/badguy. (For example, Adam Lanza, the first grade Sandy Hook terrorist, had never done bad things before, worked alone, and stuck close to home.) So, how does NSA find them? Not. How do we find postal employees who go postal? Not. How do we find serial killers ahead of time? Not. Are those Snowden’s fault? Every time there is a serial killer or a gang or mob shooting, the FBI has failed, remember. Is that Snowden’s fault also?

  4. bloopie2 says:

    “as soon as State made it a visa requirement”. Clarify please. Made “What” a visa requirement?
    .
    Anyhow, this story is a great laugh, thanks.

  5. orionATL says:

    so now, after a week of scandolous corporate media exploitation for ratings, we are back to the obvious –

    the san b. shooting was a workplace shooting.

    i am cofident the fbi behavioral unit housed at quantico realized this almost immediately;

    the shooting of people you have worked with for years is essentially a version of domestic violence, as i have noted before.

    sayed farook, or farook sayed, had a family history of such violence. that has surely been observed and analyzed – and kept quiet.

    i think the most reasonable explanation for any “terrorism” conection is that that was planted to obscure the real motive for killing fellow workers.

    as for the predident’s sour-faced speech, that was his characteristic noodle-legged conduct.

      • orionATL says:

        that certainly could be; it shows more flexible thinking than ive seen in the media.

        i’m still fixed on individual psychology. i have trouble understanding how a mother of an infant would destroy her life (and that of others) as malik did. severe depression would be one answer.

        if, however, the mother has a long history of posts expressing anger at what she feels her people have endured (i am not fond of the term”jihadi”), then i think i shall have to concede she was a committed revolutionary (to used a term from the american lexicon).

  6. P J Evans says:

    He argues that Americans have developed a sense of security in recent years (he of course ignores right wing terrorism and other gun violence) because “the NSA-FBI combination had a near-perfect track record of cutting short major jihadist attacks on Americans at home since late 2001.”

    What color is the sky on his planet? Most of the people I know worry more about being shot by cops or by ‘random’ nutjobs than by Muslim terrorists (which the FBI can’t seem to find even with help from outside).

  7. haarmeyer says:

    Oh, and also in Urdu, a language the NSA has too few translators in.

    Really? Most of Pakistan, most of the Afghan refugees, and except for the script, probably about half of India can do this. We have 300,000 South Asians living in just the SF South Bay alone. NSA must be the only department in the government that would have trouble doing Urdu, if they really do have too few translators.

    I find this really, really hard to believe.

    • bmaz says:

      Do your 300,000 claimed neighbors have training and security clearances? No? then you are full of shit. Which is evidently a pattern with you.

      • haarmeyer says:

        You’re kidding, right?

        Yes, many of them do. We have a lot of major military and intelligence facilities in the area, and many of those who come here who are Afghan are former translators for the military, and they pick up that job here quite often, too. We have a whole Defense Language Institute down the coast in Monterey, where many of the native speakers in the area get employment, and where they offer a major in Urdu.

        Yes there are 300,000+ South Asian Americans here, that isn’t a claim that’s a reality. It’s the reason why Hindi is one of the languages our county provides ballots in during elections. It’s the reason why there are Punjabi translators at the health establishments. Not just in my county, In Alameda County. Yes it is the case that people who speak Hindustani can, except for the script, understand Urdu fairly well. Even I can sometimes do that and my Hindi is not up to speaking level and very limited. Yes, it is the case that there are a lot of Afghans in this country, many in my area, who speak any number of languages, usually around 3 or 4, of which Urdu is quite frequently one. Yes, it’s true that there are more such speakers streaming into the country right now because in part of the Pakistani government’s attempt to “repatriate” Afghans who have little or no remaining ties to Afghanistan. Yes, it’s true that people speak their mother tongue at home in most of my county, not to mention up in Fremont in the next county where most of the Pakistanis and Afghans live.

        Besides, if someone doesn’t speak either Persian or Urdu, or any of the Afghan languages in between, how would they know what script the posts were in? Can you tell the difference?

        It may actually be that there is such a shortage, I didn’t say there wasn’t, I expressed disbelief. I could personally dial 3 people who could do such a translation on my cell phone out of the Contacts. I’d be very surprised if the folks at the recently dismantled NSA satellite station 6 miles from here couldn’t have done the same.

        • bmaz says:

          No, I am not kidding. Since you are so expert in this I will be awaiting news of your assistance to both State Dept and NSA in this regard. Until then, I think you are full of it and will trust the government indications that there are not enough.

          • haarmeyer says:

            No thanks, I interviewed with intelligence for languages and other skills a long time ago and didn’t find them to be a good place to work. You can’t find criticism of people based on your own belief that they couldn’t possibly have expertise, you have to find it based on whether or not you do. I know the census data of this area quite well, I know the language data of this area quite well, I know the skill sets and jobs in this area available to those with those skills very well. What is it that you know that you base your challenge on? Just your feelings about me?

            • orionATL says:

              http://www.census.gov/data/tables/2013/demo/2009-2013-lang-tables.html

              that a person speaks a language is just the first of a long series of qualifications, including, not incidentally or unimportantly, the one you mentioned from your personal experience.

              as is typical for your comments, you grab any fact at hand and wield it as if it werd relevant and you knew what you were talking about. increasingly i’m convinced, you don’t.

              if the nsa says it doesn’t enough urdu speakers, is it possible they know what they are talking about?

              • Evangelista says:

                OrionATL,

                You asked, “if the nsa says it doesn’t [have] enough urdu speakers, is it possible they know what they are talking about?”

                Under the theories that “Anything is possible” and “There is a first time for everything”, the answer to your question is “Yes.”

                I take time to reply and answer your question here on behalf of the NSA because they don’t have time to: The NSA, having determined that it is Ed Snowden’s fault they haven’t enough Urdu translators, is still occupied with attempting to determine how Snowden undermined their abilities in this area, too…

                [Hint for the NSA: It is “chain-of-suspicion syndrome”, a condition that nervous ‘intelligence’ agencies fall into when their suspicions blossom suspicions and those more suspicions, and so forth ad plethorea. When this occurs in translation situations, each translator translating an unknown language, who may possibly be disloyal and mistranslating (having obtained clearance to mole in) requires a follow-up translator check his accuracy, who requires a follow-up to check, and so on, ad inundatum… Pretty soon, in such situations, you can have the whole of Afghanistan and Pakistan in your chain of translation, and you know without having to resort to Tarot that some of them have to be Taliban…]

                Suspicion is the manure that grows the prize-winning insecurities in the field of Security.

              • haarmeyer says:

                Whatever. You can very easily check my facts — there are more native Urdu speakers than native American English speakers in this world, there are a sizeable number who have emigrated to the U.S. Many of their children also speak it, and speak American English fluently, and are American citizens. Like, for instance, Rizman Farook. You can try mightily to buttress the belief that the task isn’t doable, but in reality it is doable. The real question is why do it? The current system doesn’t protect against all possible terrorists, and the new system won’t protect against all possible terrorists. Unless you’re interested in a jobs program for needy Urdu speakers, it’s kind of a waste.

                • orionATL says:

                  this is what haarmeyer wrote:

                  ” You can try mightily to buttress the belief that the task isn’t doable,”
                  .
                  .

                  and this is what ew wrote in her column above:

                  “Oh, and also in Urdu, a language the NSA has too few translators in.” 
                  .
                  .

                  the issue ew raised had nothing to do with “doable”. it was merely a statement of circumstances at the nsa.

                  you misread or deliberaty changed the issue.

                  it was interesting to read the data in some of your comments, but the issue you are fulminating about is an issue you created. again, obfuscation.
                  .
                  .

                  as for the census data i cited in #20, it is informative in the same way some of your demographic comments were informative.

                  looking at the top of any one, you see a list there of four seperate tables of increasing specificity about language usage in the u. s. they are really an eye-opener.

  8. orionATL says:

    “Perhaps Schindler thinks that Snowden retroactively caused the NSA to overlook the intelligence on Tamerlan Tsarnaev?”

    or perhaps schindler knows what the rest of us fail to comprehend:

    that the “chaotic” turbulence caused by the shade of a fleeing edward snowden doomed the nsa to retroactively overlook the clear danger signals loudly and repeatedly broadcast by tsarnaev.

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