While the importance of metadata to American counterterrorism will continue to be a hot-button topic, the disastrous effect of the Snowden affair and its political aftershocks on our intelligence agencies is not up for debate. Neither is the fact, as attested to by several Western intelligence chiefs, that Snowden’s leaks have made terrorists more careful in their communications, and therefore more difficult to intercept. Just as bad, several top secret NSA programs, beyond metadata, that assisted counterterrorism have been downscaled since 2013 out of fears they may “look bad” if leaked.
“Before Snowden we had a definite bias for action,” explained a senior NSA official with extensive experience in counterterrorism. “But now we all wonder how the White House will react if this winds up in the newspapers.” “It’s all legal,” the official added, “the lawyers have approved, and boy do we have lots of lawyers – but will Obama throw us under the bus again?”
That concern is widespread in American counterterrorism circles, where the Obama administration’s worries about appearing “Islamophobic” are well known. This White House early on warned intelligence personnel about using the term “Islamic terrorism” even in classified reports that would never be released to the public. “Since 2009 we’ve opened investigations of groups we knew to be harmless,” explained a Pentagon counterterrorism official, “they weren’t Muslims, and we needed some ‘balance’ in case the White House asked if we were ‘profiling’ potential terrorists.”
Edited to add: Administration nixed probe into Southern California jihadists | TheHill
We had these two groups in our sights; if the investigation had continued and additional links been identified and dots connected, we might have given advance warning of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. The combination of Farook’s involvement with the Dar Al Uloom Al Islamiyah Mosque and Malik’s attendance at al-Huda would have indicated, at minimum, an urgent need for comprehensive screening. It could also have led to denial of Malik’s K-1 visa or possibly gotten Farook placed on the No Fly list.
But after more than six months of research and tracking; over 1,200 law enforcement actions and more than 300 terrorists identified; and a commendation for our efforts; DHS shut down the investigation at the request of the Department of State and DHS’ own Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Division. They claimed that since the Islamist groups in question were not Specially Designated Terrorist Organizations (SDTOs) tracking individuals related to these groups was a violation of the travelers’ civil liberties. These were almost exclusively foreign nationals: When were they granted the civil rights and liberties of American citizens?
Worse still, the administration then went back and erased the dots we were diligently connecting. Even as DHS closed my investigation, I knew that data I was looking at could prove significant to future counterterror efforts and tried to prevent the information from being lost to law enforcement. In 2013, I met with the DHS Inspector General in coordination with several members of Congress to attempt to warn the American people’s elected representatives about the threat.
In retaliation, DHS and the Department of Justice subjected me to a series of investigations and adverse actions, including one by that same Inspector General. None of them showed any wrongdoing; they seemed aimed at stopping me from blowing the whistle on this problem. Earlier this year, I was finally able to honorably retire from government and I’m now taking my story to the American people as a warning.