The Conversation

NY Times A1 Story Wrongly Credits NSA's PRISM for Foiling Zazi Case

Yesterday both the NY Times and Reuters claimed the Zazi terror plot against New York subways was foiled by an NSA email collection program called PRISM. That was not the case. The key to stopping the Zazi plot was an arrest and investigation by British authorities.

Breitbart News reported the claim, made yesterday in a widely circulated Reuters story, that NSA's PRISM program had helped foil the Zazi terror plot (including an expression of skepticism that PRISM was necessary to foil the plot). The claim that PRISM was responsible was also made by the New York Times. In a A1 story the Times claimed, "To defenders of the N.S.A., the Zazi case underscores how the agency’s Internet surveillance system, called Prism, which was set up over the past decade to collect data from online providers of e-mail and chat services, has yielded concrete results."

But the mass collection of emails under PRISM apparently had little to do with stopping the Zazi plot. A blogger at a site called emptywheel raised questions about the Reuters story yesterday. Ben Smith built upon that in a piece at Buzzfeed. As Smith reports, already public information on the Zazi case shows the email account in question was flagged on a tip from British authorities following an arrest:

The path to his capture, according to the public records, began in April 2009, when British authorities arrested several suspected terrorists. According to a 2010 ruling from Britain’s Special Immigration Appeals Commission, one of the suspects’ computers included email correspondence with an address in Pakistan.

The open case is founded upon a series of emails exchanged between a Pakistani registered email account sana_pakhtana@yahoo.com and an email account admittedly used by Naseer humaonion@yahoo.com between 30 November 2008 and 3 April 2009. The Security Service’s assessment is that the user of the sana_pakhtana account was an Al Qaeda associate…”

This is not the mass collection of email, it was ordinary police work which identified a significant email address which authorities were then able to monitor. And as Ben Smith also notes, even the specific email appears to have been intercepted by Scotland Yard which continued to monitor the account.

It seemed fairly obvious yesterday that leaks about the Zazi case were designed to provide a defense of the NSA's sweeping email dragnet. Reuters and especially the NY Times took the bait uncritically and published misleading stories which were discredited quickly. It is hard to imagine the NY Times in particular being this gullible if the PRISM revelation had come under a Republican President.


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