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How Does Latest Terror ‘Chatter’ Play Into Debate on U.S. Surveillance?

August 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Gwen Ifill turns to Brian Jenkins of the Rand Corporation and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times to discuss the broad and unspecified terrorist threat, what we know about who may be behind the chatter and how the alert is playing into a broader national conversation on America's surveillance efforts.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: To assess the threat and the to assess the threat and the reaction to it, we turn to Brian Jenkins, a security consultant at the RAND Corporation, and New York Times intelligence reporter Mark Mazzetti, who is covering the story.

And, Mark, you reported today about these intercepted communications. What do we know about them besides what I just reported?

MARK MAZZETTI, The New York Times: Not a whole lot.

We’re learning about some communications that Zawahri, the head of al-Qaida who took over after bin Laden, had with Wuhayshi, who is the head of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. There was some sort of direct or implicit order to carry out an attack as early as yesterday, Sunday.

And that’s about the extent of what we know of these communications. It is very interesting, I think, that Zawahri has this continued ongoing relationship with Wuhayshi, especially because Zawahri has been sort of portrayed recently as this out-of-touch person deep in hiding who can’t really handle a global terrorist organization. It does at least appear that he does have some degree of influence over al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been described as the most powerful and deadly affiliate that al-Qaida has.

GWEN IFILL: They made a big — I want to ask — stay with you for a moment, Mark, because they made a big decision to close all of these embassies and consulates and put out this travel alert.

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And yet when your organization and others got wind of this, the White House or the government tried to warn you against reporting it. You did for a moment and then you didn’t. Why not? Why did you in the end?

MARK MAZZETTI: As reported in our story today that there was — the story got out in other places. The actual specifics of the communications got out. And we went ahead and reported it.

I think there was a feeling — I wasn’t involved in these discussions last week, but I think there was a concern about revealing the fact that these specific intercepts had happened. And so that was the government’s case to withhold those details.

As you said, the closures have been incredibly broad. And I think they indicate that while that there may be some specific information about maybe the timing of the attack, it is very imprecise about where. And that’s why they’re really closing embassies and consulates all over the place.

GWEN IFILL: So, Brian Jenkins, precisely because of that kind of imprecision, how unusual is it to make such a blanket closure, a blanket alert as we saw here?

BRIAN JENKINS, RAND Corporation: Well, it is difficult to think of a precedent for a closure of diplomatic facilities on this scale. There have been some previous closures.

Obviously, there was one in 2003 that involved our facilities in Saudi Arabia after a number of terrorist attacks had occurs. And we were expecting a continuing campaign. In 2002, diplomatic facilities were closed in several Southeast Asian countries as a consequence of terror threats. But this is the broadest-scale closure that I can remember in response to terrorism.

GWEN IFILL: This chatter that Mark Mazzetti and others are reporting, how significant and how familiar does that sound to you as the reason for these kinds of closures and how significant is it that Ayman al-Zawahri might be involved in it?

BRIAN JENKINS: Well, with regard to — it is imprecise. And that forces you — if there were really precise information on this, they would be able to thwart the threat or they would be able to limit the scope of the disruptive effect that closures like these have.

With regard to Zawahri’s position or the broader situation of al-Qaida as a whole, I mean, recently, as recently as two years ago, U.S. officials were saying that we were within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaida, that we had pounded the operational capabilities of al-Qaida central, that is, the core command led by Zawahri, so thoroughly that they were incapable of carrying out large-scale strategic operations, although al-Qaida in a Arabian Peninsula, the group believed to be responsible for this threat, still represented a serious problem.

This suggests that al-Qaida, far from being on the ropes, represents a — still a continuing, very serious threat. And there’s no question that al-Qaida is benefiting from the continuing turmoil across North Africa and the Middle East.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Mazzetti, one of the things we have been paying a lot of attention to lately is the surveillance notion, that we are keeping an eye not only on domestic recordings, domestic communications, but also especially internationally. Is this an example of payoff, payout or that kind of — that PRISM program, those kinds of international networks we have been mounting?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, defenders of the program certainly are pointing that out. And you heard a lot of members of Congress on Sunday talk shows yesterday citing this as an example of the necessity of this surveillance, although it should be pointed out a couple things, first of all, that some critics were saying that the most controversial aspect of the surveillance, which is the bulk collection of American cell phone — phone records, wasn’t the reason why this chatter may have been intercepted.

And, secondly, I think it should be pointed out that, you know, after all of these Edward Snowden leaks, you heard some officials talking about how the leaks would do irreparable harm to the NSA’s ability to collect information, that terrorists were changing their communication patterns.

Well, maybe this information in the last few days indicates that they maybe haven’t changed so much and maybe the NSA isn’t as damaged or harmed as some may have led on.

GWEN IFILL: Sounds like a story that is just beginning to unfold.

Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times, Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corporation, thank you so much.

MARK MAZZETTI: Thank you.