The vague-yet-apparently-very-serious intelligence about a possible Al-Qaeda attack became a big issue on the Sunday chat shows–and a chance for supporters of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs to claim that the agency's controversial tactics are working.
On NBC's Meet the Press (8/4/13), host David Gregory referred to "an Al-Qaeda terror trap" and brought on two lawmakers, Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin:
GREGORY: Senator Chambliss, look, we're also in the middle of a big debate over surveillance programs. I've got to put the question to you directly. Are our surveillance programs what are giving us this stream of specific information, specific intelligence on this potential plot?
CHAMBLISS: Well, that's kind of interesting, David, because in fact they are…. If we did not have these programs, then we simply wouldn't be able to listen in on the bad guys.
On CBS's Face the Nation (8/4/13), reporter Bob Orr called it "a serious, credible threat, probably the most serious the government has seen since 2006." Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer declared "that security is very, very important, and…the agencies in charge are darned good. They're able to listen in and hear what's going on. They have disrupted many, many, many terrorist plots, and let's hope they're disrupting this one as well."
On ABC's This Week, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald was on to talk about his latest reporting on the NSA. But when it came to discussions of the current intelligence, the show interviewed two lawmakers–Republican Peter King and Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger, who both cheered the NSA. And viewers got a similar take from former Bush Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff:
Well, first let me observe, as Congressman Ruppersberger did, that apparently the collection of this warning information came from the kinds of programs we've been discussing about, the ability to capture communications overseas.
It wasn't just the politicians. "Officials tell us they believe that they are Al-Qaeda operatives already in place for this attack," as ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl put it, and guest host Martha Raddatz even declared that "the NSA helped uncover this latest terror threat."
So the message was pretty clear: The NSA programs are controversial, but here they are alerting us to real dangers. That's what various lawmakers were on the shows to say, and there was relatively little in the way of debate.
Take Meet the Press, for example. NBC's Gregory told viewers they would get some kind of debate:
And coming up here, the politics of national security. Is the administration winning the debate over the NSA surveillance programs?
But NBC didn't put together a panel that would provide much of a debate: MSNBC conservative Joe Scarborough, right-wing commentator Rick Santorum, MSNBC liberal (and Obama/NSA supporter) Joy-Ann Reid and NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell.
After complaining that Obama "has refused to confront radical Islam," Santorum was soft on the NSA, saying they are "looking for things that would be helpful…. I don't see that as interfering with anybody's privacy." When Gregory asked Reid about government encroachment on privacy, she stressed the problem of private contractors like Edward Snowden getting so much access to data, and the fact that Americans are willingly "sharing so much data with private companies from Google to Facebook…. The government can either blind itself to it, pretend it isn't there, or they can subpoena it and try to access it."
To be fair, Meet the Press did have one forceful critic of government surveillance. The only problem: It was a 38-year-old video clip of Senator Frank Church.
And a more fundamental question: Was it NSA surveillance that picked up the intelligence about Al-Qaeda that has the government on edge? The Associated Press (8/6/13) reports that one official says it wasn't:
Officials in the U.S. wouldn't say who intercepted the initial suspect communications–the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency or one of the other intelligence agencies–that kicked off the sweeping pre-emptive closure of U.S. facilities. But an intelligence official said the controversial NSA programs that gather data on American phone calls or track Internet communications with suspected terrorists played no part in detecting the initial tip. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the spying publicly.
When you consider all of this alongside the astonishing Daily Beast report (8/7/13) claiming the intelligence came from an Al-Qaeda conference call (some are highly dubious of this story), it's hard not to conclude that there are lots of leaks coming from people inside the government. But many of these are the kind that aren't likely to get anyone in trouble.