Now that we have confirmation the government has some kind of “back door” (called Prism) into all the major tech firms including Google and Facebook, the government is trying to scare us into submission. One strategy they are floating is claiming they would never have thwarted Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plot to set off bombs in the New York Subway if it hadn’t been for Prism.
First: to give the Devil his due. The anonymous government official spreading this story should be congratulated for picking a real terrorist, not of the majority of cases when the FBI found someone to recruit to a terror plot, and then foiled their own plot. As journalist Trevor Aaronson told The Atlantic:
“…of these cases, we can point to a handful of real, dangerous terrorists, like Faisal Shahzad, who came close to bombing [New York’s] Times Square, or Najibullah Zazi, who came close to bombing the New York City subway system. But so many more of them, more than 150 people, were these men who were caught in sting operations who never had the means and, in some cases, never had the idea for the terrorism plot, and it was the FBI that provided them with everything — the bomb, the transportation, everything they needed to move forward in a terrorism plot that on their own, they never would have been able to do.”
Second: If Prism was essential, what exactly would this prove? Yes, if we abolished the Fourth Amendment it would be easier for the government to thwart crimes. Do we or do we not, as Americans, want to preserve our freedoms and Constitutional government despite the risks?
Third: Najibullah Zazi was convicted in a court of law. How exactly did a secret program get entered into evidence? If that evidence was gained without probable cause, then the case would have been tossed. So how could Prism have been the essential feature in thwarting and convicting Zazi.
Fourth: in point of fact, the documents from the case all showed a convincing sequence that allowed Zazi to be discovered and stopped by conventional, Constitutional, police work with international cooperation. Specifically, Scotland Yard gave us a warning:
“The alleged plot was unmasked after an email address that was being monitored as part of the abortive Operation Pathway was suddenly reactivated. Operation Pathway was investigating an alleged UK terrorist cell but went awry after the then Met Police counter-terrorism head Bob Quick was pictured walking into Downing Street displaying top secret documents. Eleven Pakistani suspects were arrested immediately after the gaffe but later released without charge. However, security staff continued to monitor the email address which eventually yielded results.”
So this had nothing to do with a general data mining but arose from a watching a specific email account for a specific reason.
Finally: Would the use of Prism in this case, if it were true, give us a credible reason to think it makes us safer. If the government can ignore repeated warnings from Russia, and then miss a trip to Russia and back, I don’t see why the Zazi case would be anything but dumb luck. These people have too much information to interpret. Increasing the noise they get doesn’t make it more likely they will hear anything meaningful.