Did Controversial NSA Spy Programs Really Help Prevent an Attack on the Subway?

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Najibullah Zazi. Photo: Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

Late last week, unnamed sources told CBS News, Reuters, and the New York Times that the NSA's PRISM had helped to disrupt Najibullah Zazi's plot to bomb New York's subways in 2009. Thanks to PRISM, authorities were monitoring an e-mail address known to belong to a member of Al Qaeda. Zazi e-mailed that address and unwittingly revealed himself and his plans. He was arrested and now faces life in prison. Huzzah. 

But it wasn't long before the credibility of this narrative was questioned. On Twitter, AP national-security reporter Adam Goldman pointed out that the British already had that Al Qaeda e-mail address from an earlier investigation. In which case, did we really need PRISM? 

On Twitter, we asked Goldman whether it's possible that the British may have found the Al Qaeda e-mail address using PRISM, which they also have access to:

BuzzFeed's Ben Smith looked at Goldman's evidence and concluded that "this is the sort investigation made possible by ordinary warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; authorities appear simply to have been monitoring the Pakistani email account that had been linked to terrorists earlier that year."

But on This Week yesterday, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congressman Mike Rogers stuck to their guns. Sort of. Confusingly, they credited the NSA's phone metadata program, not PRISM, for Zazi's capture. Here's what Feinstein said:

The only thing taken, as has been correctly expressed, is not content of a conversation, but the information that is generally on your telephone bill, which has been held not to be private personal property by the Supreme Court.

If there is strong suspicion that a terrorist outside of the country is trying to reach someone on the inside of the country, those numbers then can be obtained. If you want to collect content on the American, then a court order is issued.

So, the program has been used. Two cases have been declassified. One of them is the case of David Headley, who went to Mumbai, to the Taj hotel, and scoped it out for the terrorist attack.

The second is Najibullah Zazi, who lived in Colorado, who made the decision that he was going to blow up a New York subway, who went to a beauty wholesale supply place, bought enough hydrogen peroxide to make bombs, was surveilled by the FBI for six months, traveled to go to New York, to meet with a number of other people who were going to carry out this attack with him and were arrested by the FBI, who has pled guilty and in federal prison.

And Rogers:

STEPHANOPOULOS: But what about this idea, raised by Senator Udall, that you reopen the Patriot Act, and put more limits on particularly the phone record collection program? Because he says that that hasn't helped. That is his suspicion, at least.

ROGERS: Well, I can tell you, in the Zazi case in New York, it's exactly the program that was used.

Meanwhile, over on CNN's State of the Union, Senator Mark Udall — one of the more vocal skeptics of the NSA thus far — was dubious about the claims of Feinstein and Rogers:

CROWLEY: Now, the DNI has said this program has, in fact, thwarted terrorist attacks. Mike Rogers of the House Intelligence Committee said he knows specifically of an attack that was thwarted through the phone program now we're talking about. You don't believe that? You haven't seen that as a member of the intelligence committee?

UDALL: I think the data is unclear. There's clearly indications that the 702 program, the so-called PRISM program that you're aware of —

CROWLEY: That's the Internet program — but it's on foreign entities.

UDALL: It surveils foreigners and foreign entities. But, by the way, that sweeps up Americans as well. We could have the another conversation about that. But it's unclear to me that we've developed any intelligence through the metadata program that's led to the disruption of plots that we could have developed through other data and other intelligence.

So Udall thinks the phone metadata program hasn't been useful. At the same time, he seemed on the cusp (before being cut off by Crowley) of saying that PRISM has worked. He was able to complete this thought on This Week:

STEPHANOPOULOS: And do you believe, though, that the program has been effective? We had Chairman Mike Rogers coming up saying, who said that this program has helped stop terrorist attacks, and (inaudible) reported that the subway, the attempted subway plot in New York subways in 2009 could have been stopped by this program.

UDALL: George, I am not convinced, and by the way, there are two programs that are being discussed. There is one the so-called PRISM program, Article 702 in the law, and it's been very effective. It surveils foreigners, grabs content, photographs, emails. The 215 provisions which are collecting all the metadata, I am not convinced that it's uniquely valuable intelligence that we could not have generated in other ways.

To sum up all of this, because you probably didn't read all of it: News reports credited PRISM for disrupting Zazi's plot. Feinstein and Rogers seem to be crediting the phone metadata program. And Udall doesn't explicitly credit PRISM for Zazi's capture, but he says the tool has been "very effective," as opposed to the phone metadata program, which, in his opinion, has not been. 

Make sense? No, it doesn't. And it's probably not going to until more details about the Zazi case are made available.