Federal Bureau of Investigation Deputy Director Sean M. Joyce mislead the American people last week when he testified before Congress that NSA’s various programs for warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens had thwarted an Al Qaeda plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.
Joyce cited this supposed plot and its interception by NSA as evidence that mass-surveillance programs protect Americans from terrorism. Joyce claimed the NYSE bombing plan was one of fifty terror plots that these programs have interrupted. But in fact, Joyce manufactured the threat against the NYSE.
According to Joyce, NSA surveillance led to the discovery of Khalid Ouazzani of Kansas City, a conspirator helping to plan the NYSE bombing. When a member of Congress asked Joyce whether Ouazzani’s bomb plan posed a serious threat, Joyce – speaking of Ouazzani and his alleged co-conspirators – testified “I think the jury considered it serious since they were all convicted.”
Joyce’s answer was doubly deceptive. Ouazzani never faced a jury. Instead, he entered into a plea agreement [PDF] with the U.S. Department of Justice, in lieu of trial. And neither that plea agreement nor the FBI’s press release contained any reference to bombs, the NYSE, or even New York more broadly. Rather, Ouazzani pled guilty to bank fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
In reality, the FBI has charged no one in connection with this supposed NYSE bomb plot. And, at least according to the FBI’s sentencing memorandum for one of the supposed bombing conspirators, there was no plot. Rather, a mysterious Yemeni codenamed the “Doctor” allegedly asked Sabirhan Hasanoff, former accountant for KPMG and PwC and apparent acquaintance of Ouazzani, to report to the Doctor on security measures surrounding the NYSE and other locations. According to the FBI’s memorandum, Hasanoff disappointed the “career jihadist” Doctor by providing only useless, publicly available information concerning the exchange’s surroundings. Further, the memorandum says nothing about a prospective bombing of the exchange, but instead refers more vaguely to a possible “attack.”
Before trumpeting Joyce’s claims concerning the efficacy of the NSA programs, news organizations could have learned easily that his testimony was dubious. A Google search for “Khalid Ouazzani” would have yielded both his plea agreement and the FBI press release in the first page of results, both dating to 2010. Within minutes and with minimal effort, reporters could have learned that neither the FBI nor the Justice Department had even alleged a link between Ouazzani and any kind of plot against the NYSE or any other target for that matter. At the very least, such due diligence would have given news organizations pause about the truthfulness of Joyce’s testimony.
To date, neither the FBI nor the Justice Department has produced any evidence that anyone planned to bomb the stock exchange. Similarly, neither organization has produced any evidence that NSA’s mass surveillance programs prevented such a crime. But Joyce’s deceptive testimony had a pronounced effect.
Newspapers and television news operations jumped on the NYSE bombing tale. Headlines blared that NSA’s secret spying operation thwarted an attack on the exchange. These reports buttressed government claims that mass-surveillance programs keep the American people safe and countered criticism of the programs from those concerned about violations of individual rights.
Though Joyce’s testimony was deceptive, it pleased NSA Director General Keith B. Alexander, who appeared at Joyce’s side in the same congressional hearing.
When the hearing concluded, an open microphone captured an ebullient Alexander telling Joyce appreciatively, “Tell your boss [FBI Director Robert Mueller] I owe him another friggin’ beer.”
The Joyce deception is evidence that the government is terrorizing New Yorkers and Americans more broadly in order to justify its warrantless surveillance program. Whether the purpose of these fanciful claims is to justify social control measures or the enormous budget for “national security” is anyone’s guess. A combination of motives is most likely at work.
From the government’s standpoint, conjuring terror plots in New York – the media capital of the world – makes perverse sense. They alarm those individuals in the best position to amplify the supposed threats. In turn, the news reports induce fear that iconic institutions may be destroyed.
But these false alarms have devastating effects aside from the fear and anxiety they induce. They cause customers of the NYSE, the people of New York, and people everywhere to suffer unnecessary security costs. And they divert enormous resources from other, more productive uses.
While General Alexander and Robert Mueller chortle over their “friggin’ beer,” the rest of us should begin taking government reports of terror plots with a grain of salt. There is strong evidence that many of these are manufactured, usually with the assistance of government informants.
The world has enough problems without creating new ones. And causing people to live in a state of fear only harms their ability to enjoy their lives.
Congress should hold Mr. Joyce to account for his deceptions, and we should all hold the media to account for rushing stories into the public consciousness that simple fact checking would have shown to be suspicious, if not false. The FBI routinely denies employment applications on grounds of apparent deceptiveness. A fair question is whether Mr. Joyce can be credible as the chief operating officer for the FBI when he has been deceptive himself. He has a history of holding agents he commands to account for their shortcomings. Certainly he deserves to be held to the same standards.
Finally, if the Yemini “Doctor” the FBI memorandum describes was indeed a “career jihadist,” the NSA should have had no difficulty obtaining a legitimate search warrant and authorization to monitor his communications. Lawful means alone would have led to those communicating with him about any plots. It would not have been necessary for the personal information of hundreds of millions of innocent people to stolen in the process.