The al-Qaida threat that triggered the shutdown of 25 American embassies across the Middle East and Africa this week was intercepted through a federal spy program that targets the electronic communications of international terrorists, Georgia’s senior senator said Tuesday.
Citing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Sen. Saxby Chambliss said in a statement that last weekend the U.S. government encountered online “chatter” in which the head of al-Qaida ordered the leader of the group’s affiliate in Yemen to carry out an attack as early as last Sunday.
Chambliss described the conversation as “very reminiscent” of the threats the U.S. picked up before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and he defended the 35-year-old spy program, which has come under fire in recent months because of its ties to National Security Agency leaker Eric Snowden.
The special provision – which was signed into law in 1978 but has been repeatedly amended since 2001 – allows the U.S. attorney general and the director of national intelligence to target people “reasonably believed” to be located outside the U.S. for up to a year at a time to acquire foreign intelligence information.
“These programs are controversial. We understand that. But they’re also very important,” Chambliss said in a statement released by his office. “If we did not have these programs, we simply wouldn’t be able to listen in on the bad guys.”
Chambliss first made his remarks on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, three days after the senator had “productive” talks with President Obama about improving the transparency and strengthening privacy protections of the surveillance act without undermining the program’s effectiveness.
The security threat level in Yemen remains extremely high, and the State Department on Tuesday ordered the evacuation of much of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and urged all Americans to leave the country as al-Qaida forces in the Arabian Peninsula continue to be active throughout the country, a statement read.
The State Department believes the unrest is connected to a September 2012 mob attack on the country’s U.S. Embassy compound, but it would not say whether the National Security Agency’s $286 million complex at Fort Gordon intercepted the initial suspect communications.
Asked by The Augusta Chronicle whether the NSA played a role in the discovery, spokeswoman Vanessa Vines said she did not “have any information to provide.”
Chambliss was not available for comment Tuesday, but in a joint statement last week with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., the Georgia Republican supported Obama’s renewal of the surveillance act’s warrantless-interception programs last December.
The four elected officials – ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees – said that after conducting a thorough review, they can confirm that the surveillance act’s business records program has “contributed to disrupting numerous terrorist attacks against our nation.”
“We understand that the American people have concerns as a result of the program’s disclosure, and the inaccurate and reckless way in which it has been characterized,” they said in a statement. “These authorities are used in a manner consistent with the law and Constitution, and we are working with our colleagues in the House and the Senate to reassure the American people and look for ways to improve transparency and strengthen privacy protections without undermining the program’s effectiveness. We want to be sure that the intelligence community has the tools it needs to keep our nation safe.
“We believe this debate in the Congressional Intelligence and Judiciary committees should continue and that any amendments to defund the program on appropriations bills would be unwise,” the congressional leaders said.