The Next Bin Laden

Instead of spectacular attacks on iconic targets, al-Qaida’s new leader wants small, opportunistic strikes. In other words, restrain the NSA at your peril.

The replacement killers: Al-Suri and his followers are reshaping al-Qaida. The replacement killers: Al-Suri and his follThe replacement killers: Al-Suri and his followers are reshaping al-
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Nov. 14, 2013, 4 p.m.

Ever since the death of Osama bin Laden, Pres­id­ent Obama and his seni­or lieu­ten­ants have been telling war-weary Amer­ic­ans that the end of the na­tion’s longest con­flict is with­in sight. “Core al-Qaida is a shell of its former self,” Obama said in a speech in May. “This war, like all wars, must end.” That was the tri­umph­al tone of last year’s reelec­tion cam­paign, too.

The truth is much grim­mer. In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials and ter­ror­ism ex­perts today be­lieve that the death of bin Laden and the decim­a­tion of the Qaida “core” in Pakistan only set the stage for a re­birth of al-Qaida as a glob­al threat. Its tac­tics have morph­ed in­to something more in­si­di­ous and in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous as safe havens mul­tiply in war-torn or failed states — at ex­actly the mo­ment we are talk­ing about cur­tail­ing the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s mon­it­or­ing cap­ab­il­ity. And the ji­hadist who many ter­ror­ism ex­perts be­lieve is al-Qaida’s new stra­tegic mas­ter­mind, Abu Musab al-Suri (a nom de guerre that means “the Syr­i­an”), has a dia­met­ric­ally dif­fer­ent ap­proach that em­phas­izes quant­ity over qual­ity. The red-haired, blue-eyed former mech­an­ic­al en­gin­eer was born in Aleppo in 1958 as Mustafa Set­mari­am Nas­ar; he has lived in France and Spain. Al-Suri is be­lieved to have helped plan the 2004 train bomb­ings in Mad­rid and the 2005 bomb­ings in Lon­don — and has been called the “Clause­witz” of the new al-Qaida.

Where­as bin Laden preached big dra­mat­ic acts dir­ec­ted by him and seni­or Qaida lead­ers, al-Suri urges the cre­ation of self-gen­er­at­ing cells of lone ter­ror­ists or small groups in his 1,600-page In­ter­net mani­festo. They are to keep up at­tacks, like mul­tiply­ing fleas on a dog that finds it­self end­lessly dis­trac­ted — and ul­ti­mately dys­func­tion­al. (A clas­sic West­ern book on guer­rilla war­fare called The War of the Flea re­portedly in­flu­enced al-Suri.) The at­tacks are to cul­min­ate, he hopes, in acts us­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

“I think al-Qaida’s cap­ab­il­it­ies for a strike in­to the United States are more dan­ger­ous and more nu­mer­ous than be­fore 9/11.”

Re­cent ter­ror­ist at­tacks against U.S. tar­gets, from the mur­der­ous 2009 spree of Army Maj. Nid­al Ma­lik Has­an at Fort Hood to the Bo­ston Mara­thon bomb­ings last year, sug­gest that al-Suri’s philo­sophy dom­in­ates al-Qaida’s newly flattened hier­archy. The late Ye­meni-Amer­ic­an im­am An­war al-Aw­laki, who preached this strategy and in­duced Has­an’s at­tack, is said to have de­veloped his ideas from al-Suri’s. Mean­while, with new refuges in North Africa, Syr­ia, and Ye­men, ji­hadists have much more ter­rit­ory from which to hatch plots un­mo­les­ted.

Yet the polit­ics at home are chan­ging as the threat abroad is grow­ing. The rev­el­a­tions dribbled out by fu­git­ive leak­er Ed­ward Snowden have out­raged mem­bers of Con­gress and world lead­ers, in­clud­ing those of close al­lies such as Ger­many and France. They say they are aghast at Amer­ic­an over­reach. Writ­ing in Der Spiegel, Snowden jus­ti­fied him­self this way: “In­stead of caus­ing dam­age, the use­ful­ness of the new pub­lic know­ledge for so­ci­ety is now clear, be­cause re­forms to polit­ics, su­per­vi­sion, and laws are be­ing sug­ges­ted.” Thanks to him, Con­gress will al­most cer­tainly rein in the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s data-trolling meth­ods — though it’s not yet clear how much.

But the agency’s op­pon­ents may not real­ize that the prac­tice they most hope to stop — its seem­ingly in­dis­crim­in­ate scour­ing of phone data and emails — is pre­cisely what in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say they need to de­tect the kinds of plots al-Suri fa­vors. For the fore­see­able fu­ture, al-Suri’s ap­proach will mean more ter­ror­ist at­tacks against more tar­gets — al­beit with a much lower level of or­gan­iz­a­tion and com­pet­ence. “It’s harder to track. Fu­ture at­tacks against the home­land will be less soph­ist­ic­ated and less leth­al, but there’s just go­ing to be more of them,” says Mi­chael Hay­den, the former NSA dir­ect­or who steered the agency after 9/11 to­ward deep dives in­to In­ter­net and tele­phon­ic data. Adds Mike Ro­gers, chair­man of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, “I think al-Qaida’s cap­ab­il­it­ies for a strike in­to the United States are more dan­ger­ous and more nu­mer­ous than be­fore 9/11.” For bet­ter or worse, the only hope to track them all is an ex­cep­tion­ally deep, or­gan­ized, and free-ran­ging in­tel­li­gence ap­par­at­us, ex­perts say.

In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials who are well briefed in the tech­nic­al as­pects of NSA sur­veil­lance also note that glob­al com­mu­nic­a­tions are vastly more com­plex than they were as re­cently as 9/11, not just in terms of speed and band­width but also in the kinds of di­git­al paths they can take. Mes­sages can travel partly by air and partly by cable, for ex­ample, and the NSA must keep up. “If you take the dif­fuse phys­ic­al en­vir­on­ment [of more failed-state havens] and you lay­er that with the dif­fuse com­mu­nic­a­tions en­vir­on­ment, and then you lay­er that with the dif­fuse ideo­lo­gic­al en­vir­on­ment — more lone wolves, for ex­ample — that makes for a far more gen­er­ally dan­ger­ous en­vir­on­ment,” says a know­ledge­able U.S. gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial who asked to re­main an­onym­ous.

All of which means that des­pite very le­git­im­ate ques­tions about wheth­er the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency is go­ing bey­ond what the law and Con­sti­tu­tion al­low, Amer­ic­ans prob­ably need the NSA now more than ever.





In the early 2000s, the world seemed a lot smal­ler to West­ern in­tel ana­lysts. Qaida lead­ers had been chased from sev­er­al coun­tries and could settle only in Afgh­anistan. Back then, just after 9/11, Wash­ing­ton had a slew of al­lies in the Muslim world provid­ing reg­u­lar up­dates. In the early 2000s, even Syr­ia helped track Sunni Is­lam­ists be­fore co­oper­a­tion ended in 2006, ac­cord­ing to an in­tel­li­gence ex­pert who works on con­tract with the Pentagon. Syr­i­an in­tel­li­gence helped avert two ma­jor at­tacks — against the U.S. Em­bassy in Ot­t­awa and a Navy base in Bahrain, he says. Back then, total in­form­a­tion aware­ness was less es­sen­tial.

No more. With the ex­cep­tion of Egypt — where the mil­it­ary has cracked down on the Muslim Broth­er­hood — the Ar­ab Spring up­ris­ings have opened up huge swaths of un­gov­erned ter­rit­ory in Muslim na­tions that once co­oper­ated with Wash­ing­ton against ter­ror­ism. The top­pling of strong auto­crat­ic lead­ers has led not to sec­u­lar demo­cracy but to frac­tion­al­iz­a­tion, al­low­ing some Is­lam­ist groups to seize ter­rit­ory in which they might host ter­ror­ists cells in the way the Taliban wel­comed bin Laden. “There are at least 25 failed states in the world, an un­pre­ced­en­ted num­ber,” says Pas­cal Bon­iface, head of the Par­is-based In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tion­al and Stra­tegic Re­la­tions. They stretch from Ye­men and Somalia to Syr­ia and Libya and Ir­aq.

Be­gin­ning with Umar Farouk Ab­dul­mutall­ab, the at­temp­ted “un­der­wear bomber” of 2009, more at­tacks have em­an­ated from Ye­men, home to al-Qaida in the Ar­a­bi­an Pen­in­sula, than from the “core” in Pakistan. It’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore oth­er failed states be­gin yield­ing plots as well, in­tel­li­gence ex­perts say. Even Afgh­anistan, des­pite Amer­ica’s 12-year war there, is ex­pec­ted to har­bor new threats; NATO of­fi­cials con­cede that large sec­tions of that coun­try along the bor­der with Pakistan will re­main un­gov­erned in­def­in­itely.

Al-Suri is out there some­where. He was said to have been rendered to Syr­ia by the CIA after his 2005 cap­ture in Pakistan, but Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad re­portedly re­leased him. Today his where­abouts re­main a mys­tery. “We don’t even know for sure that he was re­leased,” says the in­tel­li­gence ex­pert con­trac­ted to the Pentagon, who is privy to clas­si­fied re­ports on al-Suri. “The Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment an­nounced that they let him go, but there have been no sight­ings and little chat­ter about him.” With the United States call­ing for As­sad’s over­throw — des­pite sign­ing a pact with him ban­ning chem­ic­al weapons — it stands to reas­on that the Syr­i­an dic­tat­or would rel­ish see­ing the ji­hadists he is fight­ing turn­ing their at­ten­tion to Amer­ic­an tar­gets. Yet even the seni­or dip­lo­mat­ic, in­tel­li­gence, and de­fense of­fi­cials who run the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s “Re­wards for Justice” pro­gram, which of­fers money for tips lead­ing to top ter­ror­ists, are un­sure wheth­er al-Suri is at large: A State De­part­ment of­fi­cial told Na­tion­al Journ­al this week that de­fense and in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are still dis­cuss­ing wheth­er to put him back on the wanted list.

Ex­perts and schol­ars of ji­had have been track­ing al-Suri’s rise for years. A few days after bin Laden’s death in 2011, John Ar­quilla, an in­tel­li­gence ex­pert at the Nav­al Post­gradu­ate School, penned a pres­ci­ent es­say in For­eign Policy titled “The New Seeds of Ter­ror.” He wrote that the U.S. op­er­a­tion fa­cil­it­ated the Qaida re­sur­rec­tion by set­tling a doc­trin­al battle with­in the or­gan­iz­a­tion between the older “sheik” and his up­start crit­ic, al-Suri. Bin Laden’s killing only ac­cel­er­ated al-Qaida’s trans­form­a­tion from a top-down hier­archy to a looser (and more elu­sive) net­work of self-mo­tiv­ated cells. “Bin Laden’s death was the bell that soun­ded the new phase,” Ar­quilla says today. “Abu Musab al-Suri’s ideas in his call to glob­al Is­lam­ic res­ist­ance were just tak­ing root, but bin Laden was deeply op­posed to al-Suri’s ideas.” These ideas don’t in­volve com­plex, on­go­ing, mul­tina­tion­al plans de­veloped for long peri­ods over in­ter­na­tion­al phone and email lines. They of­ten are seat-of-the-pants, Bo­ston Mara­thon-type plots that are of­ten vir­tu­ally un­known ahead of time, be­cause the plot­ters are few and typ­ic­ally self-mo­tiv­ated rather than dir­ec­ted from above. They can oc­cur in ran­dom places with al­most no fore­warn­ing. And the con­sensus of seni­or de­fense and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials in the U.S. gov­ern­ment is that NSA sur­veil­lance may well be the only thing that can stop the next ter­ror­ist from blow­ing apart in­no­cent Amer­ic­ans, as happened in Bo­ston last April. “Al-Qaida is far more a prob­lem a dozen years after 9/11 than it was back then,” Ar­quilla says.

The cur­rent de­bate over the NSA’s powers has been skewed to­ward the is­sue of in­fringe­ment of Amer­ic­ans’ civil liber­ties. That’s an im­port­ant is­sue, but it has ob­scured the little-re­por­ted re­birth of al-Qaida and its new, more-dif­fi­cult-to-track shape. Mean­while, con­gres­sion­al op­pos­i­tion to “bulk” data col­lec­tion at home and email sur­veil­lance abroad is build­ing. A new bill in the Sen­ate would con­fine the NSA’s mon­it­or­ing of tele­phon­ic data (not the con­tent of the calls, but only the “call data re­cords” — whom they go to and where and when) to on­go­ing in­vest­ig­a­tions, which com­pletely misses the point about Suri-style at­tacks. Mem­bers may not real­ize that what they hope to keep from the NSA — the “whole hay­stack” of phone and email data, as NSA Deputy Dir­ect­or John Ing­lis has de­scribed it — is es­sen­tial if the gov­ern­ment hopes to find the needle of a Suri-style plot. The key part of the USA Pat­ri­ot Act that con­gres­sion­al op­pon­ents want to change, Sec­tion 215, which al­lows for va­cu­um­ing of tele­phon­ic data, “is best un­der­stood as a sort of dis­cov­ery tool,” a Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee staffer says. “It is tar­get de­vel­op­ment, un­der­stand­ing net­works. And while it is a great deal of in­form­a­tion in ag­greg­ate, it is con­trolled in such a way as not to jeop­ard­ize our pri­vacy.”

Says Mi­chael Hay­den: “People have to un­der­stand these ac­tions [against the NSA] will have con­sequences.” He adds that the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­munity be­lieves that it is mostly on top of the “big, com­plic­ated, mul­tiple-act­or, slow-mov­ing plot [like 9/11]. But [the ter­ror­ists] are not do­ing that now. They’re in­to much lower-in-threshold things. Which again de­mand very good in­tel­li­gence, very com­pre­hens­ive in­tel­li­gence” that casts as wide a net as pos­sible around the world.

The agency’s data-col­lec­tion strategy is also about de­tect­ing, track­ing, and dis­rupt­ing the loose but still leth­al net­work of ji­hadists and the Is­lam­ist preach­ers who in­spire or in­struct them in what has be­come, in al-Suri’s con­cep­tion, the biggest safe haven of all: cy­ber­space. “If we cur­tail NSA ef­forts now,” Ar­quilla says, “we give al-Qaida a new lease on life in cy­ber­space.”

Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say they know about the mush­room­ing new threat and in­sist they did not mis­lead the Amer­ic­an pub­lic by claim­ing suc­cess against core al-Qaida. A broad pres­id­en­tial re­view of in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing sched­uled to wrap up by the end of the year will ac­know­ledge that the NSA mon­it­or­ing is too in­dis­crim­in­ate, of­fi­cials say. (They add that its reach sur­prised even the pres­id­ent.) The re­view will seek to as­suage crit­ics with some re­forms — in­clud­ing end­ing reg­u­lar sur­veil­lance of friendly heads of state, such as Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel — while pre­serving most of the pro­gram. “That’s how you con­nect the dots,” says a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, not­ing that the gov­ern­ment faced cri­ti­cism as re­cently as the Bo­ston Mara­thon plot for fail­ing to con­nect vari­ous data points that would have ex­posed the vi­ol­ent rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion of at least one of the two sus­pec­ted cul­prits, the Tsarnaev broth­ers. “The pres­id­ent has been clear that even as we re­view our ef­forts, we will not harm our abil­ity to face glob­al threats,” Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil spokes­wo­man Caitlin Hay­den tells Na­tion­al Journ­al.

“If we cur­tail NSA ef­forts now, we give al-Qaida a new lease on life in cy­ber­space.”


Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials hope many of these new ji­hadist groups will re­main mostly en­gaged in loc­al fights, as against the Syr­i­an re­gime. And that if they do at­tack U.S. in­terests at home or abroad, they are ex­pec­ted to fo­cus on small-scale ter­ror­ist acts, like the Mara­thon bomb­ings. That’s why Obama says the United States should stop call­ing the con­flict with rad­ic­al Is­lam­ists a “war” and view it in­stead as it was seen pre-9/11, as an in­ev­it­able, but man­age­able, law-en­force­ment prob­lem. As the pres­id­ent put it in his de­fin­ing speech at Na­tion­al De­fense Uni­versity, the new threat is “leth­al yet less cap­able al-Qaida af­fil­i­ates; threats to dip­lo­mat­ic fa­cil­it­ies and busi­nesses abroad; homegrown ex­trem­ists.” He ad­ded that “the scale of this threat closely re­sembles the types of at­tacks we faced be­fore 9/11.”

In a series of speeches over the past year, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have also sought to dis­tin­guish “core al-Qaida” or “as­so­ci­ated groups” that are “or­gan­ized” and spe­cific­ally tar­get Amer­ic­ans — the true en­emy, in oth­er words — from oth­er threats. Among the lat­ter are “lone wolves” like the Tsarnaevs or new ex­trem­ist ele­ments emer­ging in the af­ter­math of the Ar­ab Spring, which may be fo­cused on loc­al or re­gion­al aims rather than dir­ec­ted at Amer­ica. De­fend­ing this ar­gu­ment at a speech to the Ox­ford Uni­on, former State De­part­ment Gen­er­al Coun­sel Har­old Koh sketched out a course that spe­cific­ally ex­cluded lone ter­ror­ists. “To be clear, the United States is not at war with any idea or re­li­gion, with mere pro­pa­gand­ists or journ­al­ists, or even with sad in­di­vidu­als — like the re­cent Bo­ston bombers — who may be­come rad­ic­al­ized, in­spired by al-Qaida’s ideo­logy, but nev­er ac­tu­ally join or be­come part of al-Qaida,” Koh said. “As we have seen, such per­sons may be ex­ceed­ingly dan­ger­ous, but they should be dealt with through tools of ci­vil­ian law en­force­ment, not mil­it­ary ac­tion.”

This de­fin­ing-down of the ter­ror­ist threat has, on one hand,em­boldened the NSA’s crit­ics. But the new threat char­ac­ter­ized by lone or small groups of ter­ror­ists also ar­gues power­fully for keep­ing the NSA on the front lines. As the “war” ends and the U.S. mil­it­ary and CIA with­draw troops and stand down drones, al­most all that’s left to pro­tect us is the NSA’s elec­tron­ic fence around Amer­ica. That hardly sat­is­fies some crit­ics, of course. In an in­ter­view, Koh ac­cused in­tel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als of ex­ag­ger­at­ing the threat to win more lat­it­ude and to jus­ti­fy a re­new­al of the Au­thor­iz­a­tion for Use of Mil­it­ary Force, in which Con­gress gave the pres­id­ent wide li­cense to fight ter­ror­ists after 9/11. “The fact that they want the total free­dom to have a per­petu­al war doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for the coun­try,” Koh says. He adds that there is an in­tense de­bate in­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion over which Is­lam­ist ter­ror­ists to con­sider a stra­tegic threat against U.S. in­terests, jus­ti­fy­ing war and drone strikes — rather than ar­rest. “There is a big de­bate, for ex­ample, over wheth­er al-Shabab [the ter­ror­ist group based in Somalia] is ac­tu­ally al-Qaida. Shabab has between 3,000 and 5,000 mem­bers. I would guess that only 12 to 15 are al-Qaida mem­bers.”

Even so, ad­voc­ates of in­tens­ive glob­al sur­veil­lance worry that along with al-Qaida, there is a new Is­lam­ist concept emer­ging that again makes Amer­ica the “near en­emy” it was to bin Laden, and turns the idea of Is­lam­ist res­ist­ance in­to a glob­al war. “I am con­cerned that there is a new anti-U.S. ji­hadi nar­rat­ive be­ing born, which is that the United States aban­doned Syr­i­ans to be slaughtered by Bashar al-As­sad and gave the green light to the Egyp­tian mil­it­ary to re­move the demo­crat­ic­ally elec­ted Is­lam­ist pres­id­ent in Egypt,” says Michele Dunne, a Mideast ex­pert at the At­lantic Coun­cil. Koh and oth­ers also say that the drone war has only per­petu­ated the war against ter­ror­ists by in­spir­ing new ji­hadists. “You kill one ter­ror­ist, and you cre­ate three or four more,” Bon­iface says.

Coun­terter­ror­ism spe­cial­ists ar­gue there is no oth­er way than the bulk mon­it­or­ing of tele­phone data and the trolling of for­eign email to get ahead of such a mul­tiply­ing and still-mys­ter­i­ous threat. “We have lit­er­ally thou­sands of threat streams across North­ern Africa, the Middle East, and south and cent­ral Asia,” says Ro­gers of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

Chal­lenged for proof, the gov­ern­ment has de­clas­si­fied a few suc­cesses. NSA of­fi­cials and their con­gres­sion­al de­fend­ers point to the very real threat picked up against U.S. em­bassies last sum­mer, which could only be cla­ri­fied us­ing the Pat­ri­ot Act’s Sec­tion 215, which may now be altered. They also cite the case of Najibul­lah Za­zi, an Afghan-Amer­ic­an who was ar­res­ted in 2009 and charged with plot­ting to blow up the New York sub­way. The NSA con­tends it iden­ti­fied Za­zi over­seas us­ing Sec­tion 702 of the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act — which al­lows mon­it­or­ing of email abroad and is an­oth­er, al­beit less con­tro­ver­sial, tar­get of anti-NSA ef­forts — and then used Sec­tion 215 to identi­fy Za­zi’s po­ten­tial as­so­ci­ates in the U.S. be­fore he could act. “Giv­en that we now had reas­on­able ar­tic­ul­able sus­pi­cion of a pos­sible plot by al-Qaida in­to the home­land, we were able to de­term­ine fur­ther con­nec­tions in New York and else­where,” NSA Deputy Dir­ect­or Ing­lis test­i­fied. “The FBI tracked him as he “¦ in­ten­ded to mount a plot which was de­scribed as the most sig­ni­fic­ant ter­ror­ist plot since 9/11.”

But de­clas­si­fy­ing and pub­li­ciz­ing such sup­posed suc­cesses only tells fu­ture bad guys how to avoid ex­pos­ure. And try­ing to tie spe­cif­ic in­tel­li­gence tid­bits to spe­cif­ic foiled plots is too simplist­ic. “Crit­ics al­ways say, ‘Show me an at­tack on the home­land that was stopped by the 215 pro­gram,’ ” says the U.S. gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial well versed in NSA prac­tices. “That en­tirely misses the point. It doesn’t ac­count for the real­ity of how in­tel­li­gence works. It’s not that pods or cells are dis­rup­ted by one piece of in­form­a­tion from one au­thor­ity. It’s a com­plex en­deavor that puts dif­fer­ent pieces to­geth­er to rule things out.”

Of­fi­cials also say they need more in­tel­li­gence than ever to de­term­ine which of the mul­ti­far­i­ous new ji­hadist groups is a true threat. “The really dif­fi­cult stra­tegic ques­tion for us is which one of these groups do we take on,” Hay­den says. “If you jump too quickly and you put too much of a gen­er­ic Amer­ic­an face on it, then you may make them mad at us when they wer­en’t be­fore. So we are go­ing to need a pretty nu­anced and soph­ist­ic­ated un­der­stand­ing of where there these new groups are go­ing and where we need to step up and in­ter­vene.”

Some of­fi­cials sug­gest that to do that — to dis­crim­in­ate care­fully between the ter­ror­ists who are dir­ectly tar­get­ing U.S. in­terests and those who aren’t — the United States needs to step up, not slow down, the NSA’s mon­it­or­ing of po­ten­tial tar­gets. When it comes to the widen­ing ji­hadist-con­trolled re­gions in Syr­ia for ex­ample, Ro­gers says, “we know there’s an on­go­ing rift between al-Qaida in the Le­vant, al-Qaida in Ir­aq, and al-Qaida core about wheth­er that safe haven should be used to con­duct ‘ex­tern­al op­er­a­tions.’ ” That dis­cus­sion, and the large num­bers of West­ern ji­hadists who are flock­ing to Syr­ia to fight As­sad but could someday turn their at­ten­tion back to Amer­ica, is what “keeps guys like me up at night.”

Na­tion­al se­cur­ity pro­fes­sion­als say they ex­pect many such sleep­less nights ahead. At a con­gres­sion­al hear­ing last May, Mi­chael Shee­han, the as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of De­fense for spe­cial op­er­a­tions and low-in­tens­ity con­flict, said U.S. mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions against al-Qaida and as­so­ci­ated forces are “go­ing to go on for quite a while … bey­ond the second term of the pres­id­ent…. I think it’s at least 10 to 20 years.”


The cli­mate of fear in which the NSA first began its data sweeps has all but dis­ap­peared, and com­pla­cency has re­turned. Yet, iron­ic­ally, it was Con­gress’s own out­rage over per­ceived pre-9/11 over­sights that pro­pelled the NSA to re­vo­lu­tion­ize its tech­niques for mon­it­or­ing emails and phone data. On Dec. 20, 2002, a Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee that in­cluded Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. — today one of the loudest crit­ics of the “sur­veil­lance state” — con­cluded in its of­fi­cial re­port that the NSA had held back U.S. coun­terter­ror­ism ef­forts that might have pre­ven­ted 9/11 be­cause of the agency’s “fail­ure to ad­dress mod­ern com­mu­nic­a­tions tech­no­logy ag­gress­ively.”

The NSA’s de­fend­ers say that its suc­cess in fi­nally ac­com­plish­ing this should not be un­der­es­tim­ated. Of­fi­cials such as former FBI Dir­ect­or Robert Mueller and NSA Dir­ect­or Keith Al­ex­an­der have made com­pel­ling cases that if the NSA had main­tained the same kind of search­able data­base of U.S. call re­cords be­fore 9/11 that it has now, the plot that killed more than 3,000 Amer­ic­ans might have been de­tec­ted. Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per test­i­fied re­cently that, in the case of the AQAP threat against em­bassies last sum­mer, a num­ber of phone num­bers or emails “emerged from our col­lec­tion over­seas that poin­ted to the United States.” Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., chair­wo­man of the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee and un­til re­cently one of the agency’s chief cham­pi­ons, wrote in The Wall Street Journ­al, “For­tu­nately, the NSA call-re­cords pro­gram was used to check those leads and de­term­ined that there was no do­mest­ic as­pect to the plot­ting.” Ro­gers says he be­lieves the plot­ters may have only put their planned op­er­a­tion on hold for now.

Fein­stein has writ­ten a new bill, which passed the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee by 11-4, that would pre­serve the heart of the NSA’s bulk-col­lec­tion pro­gram with ad­di­tion­al over­sight. Yet even she has called for a broad-based “re­view of the in­tel­li­gence frame­work” to as­sess pri­or­it­ies. And her le­gis­la­tion may face an up­hill climb against sup­port for the rival USA Free­dom Act co­sponsored by Demo­crat­ic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chair­man of the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, and Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner, one of the ori­gin­al au­thors of the USA Pat­ri­ot Act. The Leahy-Sensen­bren­ner bill would force the NSA to link any bulk col­lec­tion to a spe­cif­ic on­go­ing in­vest­ig­a­tion, pre­vent­ing it from listen­ing to any­one else. Clap­per says the meas­ure would “neu­ter” Sec­tion 215 of the act be­cause the law is used to en­gender on­go­ing in­vest­ig­a­tions — or as he put it, to pur­sue “in­vest­ig­at­ory leads that could lead to prob­able cause.”

Yes, there is ample reas­on to think the NSA has over­reached in re­cent years — as even Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry has con­ceded — by prowl­ing for dip­lo­mat­ic and eco­nom­ic in­form­a­tion from rival and even friendly powers rather than fo­cus­ing nar­rowly on coun­terter­ror­ism. Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Merkel’s cell phone and U.N. Sec­ret­ary-Gen­er­al Ban Ki-Moon’s con­ver­sa­tions may be a SIGINT bridge too far, caus­ing un­ne­ces­sary dis­rup­tion of dip­lo­mat­ic re­la­tions and glob­al sta­bil­ity for mea­ger in­tel­li­gence re­turns.

But the very real danger now is that, in seek­ing to pre­vent the NSA from con­duct­ing such op­er­a­tions in the fu­ture, Con­gress may throw out the baby with the bathwa­ter. And the world of om­ni­present ter­ror that Abu Musab al-Suri wants to cre­ate could be­come a far more per­il­ous one for Amer­ic­ans.

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