The use of data mining wasn't how they foiled prior terrorist plots. The data mining wasn't even
Lawyers and intelligence experts with direct knowledge of two intercepted terrorist plots that the
Obama administration says confirm the value of the NSA's vast data-mining activities have questioned
whether the surveillance sweeps played a significant role, if any, in foiling the attacks.
... court documents lodged in the US and UK, as well as interviews with involved parties, suggest
that data-mining through Prism and other NSA programmes played a relatively minor role in the
interception of the two plots. Conventional surveillance techniques, in both cases including
old-fashioned tip-offs from intelligence services in Britain, appear to have initiated the
In the case of Zazi, an Afghan American who planned to attack the New York subway, the breakthrough
appears to have come from Operation Pathway, a British investigation into a suspected terrorism cell
in the north-west of England in 2009. That investigation discovered that one of the members of the
cell had been in contact with an al-Qaida associate in Pakistan via the email address
British newspaper reports at the time of Zazi's arrest said that UK intelligence passed on the email
address to the US. The same email address, as Buzzfeed has pointed out, was cited in Zazi's 2011
trial as a crucial piece of evidence. Zazi, the court heard, wrote to firstname.lastname@example.org asking
in coded language for the precise quantities to use to make up a bomb.
Eric Jurgenson, an FBI agent involved in investigating Zazi once the link to the Pakistani email
address was made, told the court: "My office was in receipt – I was notified, I should say. My
office was in receipt of several email messages, email communications. Those email communications,
several of them resolved to an individual living in Colorado."
Michael Dowling, a Denver-based attorney who acted as Zazi's defence counsel, said the full picture
remained unclear as Zazi pleaded guilty before all details of the investigation were made public.
But the lawyer said he was sceptical that mass data sweeps could explain what led law enforcement to
"The government says that it does not monitor content of these communications in its data
collection. So I find it hard to believe that this would have uncovered Zazi's contacts with a known
terrorist in Pakistan," Dowling said.
Further scepticism has been expressed by David Davis, a former British foreign office minister who
described the citing of the Zazi case as an example of the merits of data-mining as "misleading" and
"an illusion". Davis pointed out that Operation Pathway was prematurely aborted in April 2009 after
Bob Quick, then the UK's most senior counter-terrorism police officer, was pictured walking into
Downing Street with top secret documents containing details of the operation in full view of cameras.
The collapse of the operation, and arrests of suspects that hurriedly followed, came five months
before Zazi was arrested in September 2009. "That was the operation that led to the initial data
links to Zazi – they put the clues in the database which gave them the connections," Davis said.
Davis said that the discovery of the email@example.com email – and in turn the link to Zazi –
had been made by traditional investigative work in the UK. He said the clue-driven nature of the
inquiry was significant, as it was propelled by detectives operating on the basis of court-issued
"You can't make this grand sweeping [data collection] stuff subject to warrants. What judge would
give you a warrant if you say you want to comb through vast quantities of data?"
[Some defenders] have also pointed to the case of David Headley, who in January was sentenced to
35 years in jail for having made multiple scouting missions to Mumbai ahead of the 2008 terrorist
attacks that killed 168 people. Yet the evidence in his case also points towards a British tip-off
as the inspiration behind the US interception of him.
In July 2009, British intelligence began tracking Headley, a Pakistani American from Chicago, who
was then plotting to attack Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in retaliation for its publication of
cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Information was passed to the FBI and he was thereafter, until his
arrest that October, kept under targeted US surveillance.
An intelligence expert and former CIA operative, who asked to remain anonymous because he had been
directly involved in the Headley case, was derisive about the claim that data-mining sweeps by the
NSA were key to the investigation. "That's nonsense. It played no role at all in the Headley case.
That's not the way it happened at all," he said.
Ah ha. It's because they didn't get a hit on the search term "terrorists who want to bomb" and
decided their work was done.
Nothing to see here. Move along to the next officially manufactured crisis please.