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.
In my continuing obsession to understand precisely how the government really uses the dragnet, consider this post, in which NSA Review Group member Geoffrey Stone conducts (IMO) inadequate analysis to conclude the phone dragnet is probably unconstitutional.
In it, he provides this description of how the government uses the phone dragnet:
In 2012, the NSA queried a total of 288 phone numbers. Based on these queries, the NSA found 16 instances in which a suspect phone number was directly or indirectly in touch with another phone number that the NSA independently suspected of being associated with terrorist activity. In such cases, the NSA turns the information over to the FBI for further investigation.
In terms of the “connect the dots” metaphor, the purpose of the program is not so much to discover new “dots” but to determine if there are connections between two or more already suspect “dots.” For example, if a phone number belonging to a terrorist suspect in Pakistan is found to have called a phone number in the United States that the government independently suspects belongs to a person involved in possible terrorist activity, alarm bells (figuratively) go off very loudly, alerting the government to the need for immediate attention. [my emphasis]
I don’t think this can be an accurate description of how the dragnet works.
It is close to what happened with Adis Medunjanin. As the FBI was honing in on Najibullah Zazi, the NSA did a query and found a new cell phone for Medunjanin, though they already knew Medunjanin was a likely accomplice of Zazi’s through via travel records. The government says they were particularly interested in this phone because it was in contact with other extremists. Thus, they found a brand new phone number, but one that ended up being associated with both a suspect (Medunjanin) and other suspects (the other people that phone was in contact with).
But that cell phone for Medunajnin was a brand new number to the NSA, at least according to their reports.
The claim may still be true if they used burner matching to identify Medunjanin as a match to the other phone record they had on him. But it seems this process would have to involve additional information about Medunjanin at some point — at the very least, the match of those travel documents to that phone number, if not his identity.
In other words, this only seems to make sense if they had Medunjanin’s “identity” in some form or another, belying their claims not to have identities while they’re contact chaining.
The description is potentially more problematic with Basaaly Moalin. In his case, the stated explanation for what happened is they found his number on a second-degree search, sent it to the FBI, and the FBI learned he was the guy who had previously been investigated in 2003.
The problem might be alleviated in two ways: first, if the hawala through which Moalin was sending money to Ayro, was also tied to a suspect number. That’s a distinct possibility: but the question is, how does that identity as a suspect number get communicated to NSA? If NSA already had it, doesn’t it mean they’ve got more suspect numbers sitting somewhere than have been RAS approved?
The other possibility is that Moalin himself was still identified as a suspect number from the investigation back in 2003 — that an investigation that turned up no evidence might still, during the era of the illegal program, have gotten someone nominated as a suspect number under Cheney’s program, and they never purged the system entirely (which would seem to be supported by the 2009 problems, which showed they hadn’t turned off the illegal program features).
Either of these possibilities, of course, would raise new concerns about the NSA program.
But the description would also raise real issues, both about the honesty of witnesses and the potential efficacy of the system. If the NSA only triggers on people who’ve got ties to a second suspect number (which is entirely different than what they’ve been saying) then it could not possibly alert the government to a fully compartmented lone actor (someone like, say, Faisal Shahzad). That is, it would only find people who were engaged in the kind of elaborate planning seen before the government dismantled al Qaeda, but would not find the kind of individual extremists we’ve seen almost exclusively (with the exception of Zazi) for years.
This would answer the question of whether the NSA is finding the right numbers, in that it would be less likely to find someone innocent. It also might explain why the program didn’t find Shahzad. But it would also mean it does (as presented) far less than the NSA has been saying it does.
I don’t actually believe that, but that is what it would suggest.
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.
What was the first count that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the UndieBomber — was found guilty of?
Particularly given Lindsey Graham’s persistent tweeting yesterday that “the last thing we may want to do is read Boston suspect Miranda Rights,” there was a lot of discussion in the moments after Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured last night about whether he would be read his rights.
At first, there were reports he would be. But then DOJ announced he would not be read Miranda immediately; they would invoke the public safety exception to question him.
“The suspect is en route to the hospital for immediate treatment,” the official tells TPM’s Sahil Kapur. “But we plan to invoke the public safety exception to Miranda in order to question the suspect extensively about other potential explosive devices or accomplices and to gain critical intelligence.”
As of about 40 minutes ago, he had still not been read his rights.
Now, thus far, I’m actually not that worked up about Miranda rights (though I may get there soon). As Orin Kerr explains, the public safety exception is a legally recognized law, and Miranda itself only limits what can be admitted as testimony against Dzhokhar in his trial (I’m betting he’ll plead guilty in any case). The government appears to have so much evidence against him in any case, any confession he makes will likely not be necessary to convict him.
Mind you, as Charlie Savage reported two years ago, the government has been institutionalizing longer delays before they give Miranda warnings, most notably with people they (or foreign proxies) interrogate overseas first, followed by a clean team Mirandized interrogation. And as the reference to “gain[ing] critical intelligence” above suggests, the Obama Administration is stretching the intent of pre-Miranda interrogations to include more substantive interrogation (update: Emily Bazelon also made this point).
But here in the US, the delays on Miranda warnings aren’t that long. The best–quite similar–example is the 2009 UndieBomber, who was interviewed for about 50 minutes under a public safety exception when he was captured. That entire interrogation was deemed admissible and in fact formed a significant part of the opening arguments in his trial (which didn’t get much further than opening arguments before he plead guilty). So the UndieBomber’s case is one reason the Administration is confident they could question Dzhokhar without Mirandizing him at first (though the length of time has gotten far longer than used with the UndieBomber).
There’s a precedent from the UndieBomber I find more troubling though. The judge in that case also allowed the use of UndieBomber’s statements from the hospital after he had been given a fair amount of sedation. While there was a dispute about how much he got and what kind of effect that might have had, conversations he had with a nurse were also used in the opening arguments of the trial. The two issues together — a suspect interviewed without a lawyer after he’s been given serious drugs, both of which will be apply to Dzhokhar, as well — is troubling on legal, humanitarian, and practical grounds. The High-Value Interrogation Group had already been brought in last night, which suggests he may well be asked questions while in precarious medical state.
But the big issue, in my opinion, is presentment, whether he is brought before a judge within 48 hours. In addition to stretching Miranda, the government has also been holding and interrogating suspects for periods — up to two weeks for American citizens and far longer for non-citizens — before they see a judge. Not only does this postpone the time when they will be given a lawyer whether they ask or not (because judges are going to assign one), but it gives the government an uninterrupted period of time to use soft coercion to get testimony and other kinds of cooperation.
In my opinion, two of the most troubling cases like this, both involving naturalized citizens accused of terrorism, are Faisal Shahzad and Manssor Arbabsiar.
Mark Mazzetti, Charlie Savage, and Scott Shane team up to provide the government’s best case — and at times, an irresponsibly credulous one — for the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and the collateral deaths of Samir Khan and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.
Yet even in a 3,600 word story, they don’t present any evidence against the senior Awlaki that was fresher than a year old — the October 2010 toner cartridge plot — at the time the Yemeni-American was killed. (I’m not saying the government didn’t have more recent intelligence; it just doesn’t appear in this very Administration-friendly case.) Not surprisingly, then, the story completely ignores questions about the definition of “imminent threat” used in the OLC memo and whether Awlaki was an “imminent” threat when he was killed.
The “linked in various ways” standard for killing Americans
Moreover, the case they do present has various weaknesses.
The story provides a fair amount of space to Awlaki’s celebration of the Nidal Hasan attack (though it does make it clear Awlaki did not respond enthusiastically to Hasan’s queries before the attack).
Investigators quickly discovered that the major had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki, though the cleric’s replies had been cautious and noncommittal. But four days after the shootings, the cleric removed any doubt about where he stood.
“Nidal Hassan is a hero,” he wrote on his widely read blog. “He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”
It uses far vaguer language to describe Awlaki’s role in the Faisal Shahzad and toner cartridge plots.
Meanwhile, attacks linked in various ways to Mr. Awlaki continued to mount, including the attempted car bombing of Times Square in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen who had reached out to the preacher on the Internet, and the attempted bombing by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula of cargo planes bound for the United States that October.
“Linked in various ways” seems to be the new standard for killing an American. That, in spite of the fact that Shahzad’s tie to Awlaki seems to be the same Hasan had: an inspiration, but not any involvement in the plot. And while Awlaki is reported to have had some role in the toner cartridge plot, reports from Saudi infiltrator Jabir al-Fayfi apparently fingered others in AQAP as the chief plotters.
I guess that would be too much nuance to include in a 3,600 word article.
NYT doesn’t care about problems with the Abu Tarak explanation
Which leaves the UndieBomb attack as the sole attack in which the NYT presents evidence about Awlaki’s direct role. But there’s a problem with their claims there, too.
The would-be underwear bomber told F.B.I. agents that after he went to Yemen and tracked down Mr. Awlaki, his online hero, the cleric had discussed “martyrdom and jihad” with him, approved him for a suicide mission, helped him prepare a martyrdom video and directed him to detonate his bomb over United States territory, according to court documents.
In his initial 50-minute interrogation on Dec. 25, 2009, before he stopped speaking for a month, Mr. Abdulmutallab said he had been sent by a terrorist named Abu Tarek, although intelligence agencies quickly found indications that Mr. Awlaki was probably involved. When Mr. Abdulmutallab resumed cooperating with interrogators in late January, an official said, he admitted that “Abu Tarek” was Mr. Awlaki. With the Nigerian’s statements, American officials had witness confirmation that Mr. Awlaki was clearly a direct plotter, no longer just a dangerous propagandist.
I don’t doubt that Awlaki was directly involved in this attack in some way. And I got the same explanation about Abu Tarak from “an official” back when I first noted the discrepancy between DOJ’s public claims (thanks for not crediting me on that one, NYT boys). But either Abdulmutallab said something beyond “Abu Tarak was Awlaki,” or the entire explanation is not credible.
That’s because Abdulmutallab’s initial interrogation — according to the version presented by Jonathan Tukel in the opening arguments of Abdulmutallab’s trial — said Abu Tarak did the following:
Yet according to the version of Abdulmutallab’s interrogation presented in his sentencing memo, here’s who did those things:
In a fit of fearmongering reminiscent of the Mobile Bioweapons Labs used to get us into the Iraq War, FDNY did a report last month warning about the use of food trucks by terrorists. (Via Government Security News, h/t G.W.Schulz) The chief worry seems to be that food trucks carry 20 pound propane cylinders, get close to important landmarks, and would serve as an easy surveillance platform.
But some of the other things the report warns about are the fact that “roach coaches” are increasingly being replaced by gourmet carts and ESPN’s food cart has a large screen TV.
Apparently, in addition to Ford being a suspected terrorist, ESPN is now a suspected front for a terrorist surveillance operation, complete with large screen TV showing sports?
As Schulz pointed out, the guy who thwarted Faisal Shahzad’s attempt to blow up Times Square was street vendor Duane Jackson, not the NYPD, which was instead busy profiling Muslim-owned businesses rather than the 7-11 that might have led to Shahzad’s hawala. And while Jackson’s handbag cart probably doesn’t have propane tanks, if we start treating street vendors generally as subjects of suspicion, we’re less likely to see the cooperation that Jackson gave.
Food trucks may make great surveillance platforms, but that’s true of citizen observers like Jackson as much as terrorists.
It’s bad enough that the NYPD continues its Muslim spying program in spite of their Intelligence Division Chief’s admission that they have not derived a single lead from it. But look more closely at the astoundingly stupid rationalizations that Thomas Galati gave in his deposition for the program.
Galati imagines that if NYPD were ever faced with an imminent terrorist threat, the demographic mapping they had already done would allow them to figure out right away where the terrorist might go.
When we are faced with a threat or we have information about a threat that is present and we need to go out and we need to try and mitigate that threat, we have to be able to, at our fingertips, find what is the most likely location that that terrorist is going to go to and hide out amongst other people from the same country.
Let’s consider how this worked in practice the single time it might have applied.
When the FBI alerted the NYPD that Najibullah Zazi was heading back to NYC with the intent to blow up some subways, the NYPD knew exactly who to go to. They called Zazi’s Imam, Ahmad Wais Afzali, who not only knew him but had taught him and some of his accomplices. So that part worked.
What didn’t work is that Afzali promptly tipped off Zazi and his father, making it more difficult to develop a case against Zazi’s accomplices.
Media reports quoting anonymous FBI officials have suggested the NYPD botched the case when it showed a picture of Najibullah Zazi, the Denver shuttle-bus driver at the heart of the investigation, to Ahmed Afzali, a Queens Imam and sometime police informant. Afzali, the reports say, first called Zazi’s father Mohammed, then Najibullah himself, alerting them to the probe. The FBI, which had been monitoring the calls, was then forced to move immediately to arrest the Zazis — much sooner than it had planned.
When Zazi traveled to New York ahead of the anniversary of 9/11, the FBI as a precaution alerted the NYPD. That’s when officers from the NYPD’s intelligence unit consulted Afzali. “It looks like they did this on their own initiative — they really trusted this Imam,” says the law-enforcement official. “But if they’d consulted with the bureau first, they’d have been told not to talk to anybody.”
So far Galati’s logic works if you want to make sure terrorists are tipped off by their close associates.
But it gets worse.
Central to the Galati’s explanation for the NYPD’s retention of the content of conversations about events–such as a Quran-burning, in the passage below (or, presumably, opposition to a drone strike)–is that it provides insight into whether a terrorist would be “comfortable in” a particularly environment.
Q I think you’ve told me that the fact that at this particular location where there are Pakistanis speaking Urdu, the Zone Assessment Unit heard two men complaining about the [redacted-Quran burning] That fact alone, their complaint expressed to each other doesn’t make it more likely that this is a place where a terrorist would go?
A It doesn’t make it more likely or less likely. It’s a tool for us to look for that person that we’re looking for that has that same characteristic that’s going to hide or recruit within a place that he or she is comfortable in.
Justin Elliott takes the debunking I did here one step further: a claim by claim debunking of the NYPD’s claims to have thwarted 14 attacks against the city. He helpfully groups his debunkery into three groups:
Real attacks the NYPD had no role in or even undermined but for which they claim credit.
Those marginally credible plots involving government informants.
Those plots deemed not credible by (usually anonymous) experts or never developed.
That’s it. The “threats” the NYPD is using to justify profiling the city’s (and suburbs’) Muslims were either missed by the NYPD, created in large by them, or never really developed.
I’d add just two things. First, as I have noted, for two of three actual attacks here, the NYPD actually got close but missed (or even hindered) the developing plots. These near misses suggest the NYPD may well have picked a few worthwhile investigation targets, but its actions are failing to reveal any real, rather than manufactured, threat.
There’s one more thing Elliot’s piece made me realize. Several of these–including Uzair Paracha, Iyman Faris, and the NYSE/Citi plot–can be traced back to KSM. As Elliott notes–and I’ve noted before–some of his evidence against Paracha, at least, was collected during his worst period of torture. Not only does that suggest I should add “exploiting torture-induced testimony” to my title.
But it makes me wonder whether one of the problems with trying KSM in NY, for Ray Kelly, was the possibility that KSM would expose the fraud at the heart of Kelly’s counterterrorism scam.
I have twice before noted some curious details about Joby Warrick’s telling of the events leading up to Baitullah Mehsud’s death. I noted that it is another example–like the Iraq War–of an attack justified by nukes in which the nukes were ultimately never found. And I noted there are some significant differences between the NYT’s version of the story and Joby Warrick’s. Daniel Klaidman apparently tells his own version in his book, which I hope to read next week.
Mind you, I’m not saying that any of these journalists is telling the complete story or even that any one journalist presents a story that is entirely true, I’m just noting that different Administration sources are feeding different stories.
Last week Ben Wittes transcribed the complete passage from Klaidman’s book that describes how Rahm Emanuel decided to publicize Baitullah’s killing for political benefit.
When they finally took Mehsud out in August 2009, [White House Chief of Staff Rahm] Emanuel celebrated. He had a hawkish side to him, having volunteered with the Israeli Defense Forces as a civilian during the 1991 Gulf War. But above all, Emanuel recognized that the muscular attacks could have a huge political upside for Obama, insulating him against charges that he was weak on terror. “Rahm was transactional about these operational issues,” recalled a senior Pentagon official. “He always wanted to know ‘how’s this going to help my guy,’ the president.”
Though the program was covert, Emanuel pushed the CIA to publicize its covert successes. When Mehsud was killed, agency public affairs officers anonymously trumpeted their triumph, leaking colorful tidbits to trusted reporters on the intelligence beat. Newspapers described the hit in cinematic detail, including the fact that Mehsud was blown up on the roof of his father-in-law’s compound while his wife was massaging his legs. [italics Wittes’, bold mine]
Here’s how Warrick describes the killing in his book.
It was now 1:00 A.M. in the Paksitani village. Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban and chief protector of the Jordanian physician Humam al-Balawi, now lay on his back, resting as the IV machine dripped fluid into his veins. At his feet, a pair of young hands, belonging not to a doctor, as the CIA supposed, but to his new wife, were massaging his swollen legs. Barely aware of the buzzing distance drone, oblivious of the faint hissing of the missile as it cleaved the night air, he took a deep breath and looked up at the stars.
The rocket struck Mehsud where he lay, penetrating just below the chest and cutting him in two. A small charge of high explosives detonated, hurling his wife backward and gouging a small crater in the bricks and plaster at the spot where she had knelt. The small blast reverberated against the nearby hills, and then silence.
Overhead, the drones continued to hover for several minutes, camera still whirring. A report was hastily prepared and relayed to Panetta at the White House.
Two confirmed dead, no other deaths or serious injuries. Building still stands. [italics original, bold mine]
That is, while Klaidman is too polite to say it, this account is the one that derives from Rahm’s decision to publicize Mehsud’s killing. (Warrick sources these details to “three U.S. intelligence officials involved in the planning or oversight of the operation.”)
Now, the NYT reveals that some sources say there were other civilian casualties.
Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official.
This doesn’t mean Warrick’s version of the drones originally reporting there were no other casualties is incorrect on that front–after all, drones don’t provide perfect intelligence, contrary to what their boosters say, and it’s possible that reports of other casualties came later from HUMINT. But if there were other casualties, it probably means many of these cinematic details about the pinpoint nature of the strike–Meshud being cut in two and his wife being blown back but the strike leaving only a small crater–are not entirely true.
Again, I’m not saying any of these journalists are fully capturing the truth; what they’re telling is what Administration sources have told them, and I doubt NYT and Klaidman’s sources have any less of an agenda than Warrick’s did. And note all the details about Mehsud’s death distract from the way we tried to get to him by first killing one of his clan-members, then targeting that man’s funeral, which Warrick does include; Warrick was reporting on our funeral targeting tactic before TBIJ did, to great controversy.
But I am noting that this cinematic picture of very controlled killing (even the killing of a young woman who was probably pushed into this marriage as a teenager) comes from a decision from Rahm to push such picture for political advantage.
One more thing. The killing of Mehsud’s commander and then Mehsud and his young wife and maybe her family, reportedly justified by intelligence on nukes that never materialized? Mehsud claimed direct credit for Faisal Shahzad’s attempted attack on Times Square, and al-Balawi killed 7 CIA officers at Khost in direct revenge for the killing of Mehsud. These are some of the most serious attacks on us or attempts in recent years, both stemming from this attack on someone whose aspirations to attack us may never have been real beforehand.