By: Bryan Reines
On August 4, 2013 the Obama administration temporarily closed 19 embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East and Africa, and issued a travel alert to Americans in those regions.1 This reaction came after information gathered by the National Security Agency (NSA) hinted at a possible Al-Qaeda threat. As of today all of these embassies and consulates have reopened with Sana’a, Yemen as the last to reopen.
This news came at an interesting time for the Obama Administration. This story might have hurt the president before his re-election, but now it seems to have legitimized our leaders’ faith in the NSA. The intercepted information does not fundamentally change the nature of the security versus privacy debate that Edward Snowden’s leaks ignited, but it may give us evidence that the NSA does play a vital role in national security. The intercepted Al-Qaeda message came several months after Obama addressed concerns about the increasing number of drone strikes at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. on May 23. This speech was just several weeks after Bradley Manning was acquitted of “aiding the enemy” (though he was found guilty on a number of other charges), and days after a Quinnipiac poll reported that almost three-fifths of American voters believe that Edward Snowden is a whistle-blower as opposed to a traitor.2 3
So what did the NSA hear?
CNN reported that the NSA heard a phone call in which Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged a fellow Al-Qaeda officer in Yemen to “do something.”4 A senior U.S. security official privy to the details of the NSA information called “the threat appears to be much worse than it has [been] in a long time.”5 American officials are unsure of where an attack could take place, thus the widespread shutdowns, but they believed an attack could have been coming soon.
Violence in the Middle East and South Asia often increases at the end of Ramadan, which was August 7 this year, as the “fighting season” comes to an end.6 Although no attacks associated with this threat occurred, government figures from both sides of the aisle took the threat very seriously. Republican Representative Michael McCaul appeared on Face the Nation to say that this was “one of the most specific and credible threats [he’s seen] since 9/11.” Democrats and Republicans worked together on this security issue, which could alter the American public’s perception of the NSA spying scandal.
President Obama must have had qualms about lending credibility to Al-Qaeda’s threat, an organization he frequently stated was “on its heels” during the campaign. However, he also must take every precaution when American lives are at stake, particularly since the Benghazi attacks.8 In light of these Al-Qaeda threats and the criticism he’s receiving at home and abroad over the NSA scandal, Obama must wake up every day praising his near-lame duck status and kissing the 22nd amendment. Meanwhile, planned or not, the Al-Qaeda threat diverted attention from the NSA scandal and may increase public approval of the government agency.
1Starr, Barbara, Chris Lawrence, and Tom Cohen. "Intercepted al Qaeda message led to closing embassies, consulates - CNN.com." CNN.com - Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News. http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/04/politics/us-embassies-close (accessed August 13, 2013).
2 Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation. "Manning not guilty of aiding the enemy, faces 130+ yrs in jail on other charges." RT. rt.com/usa/manning-not-guilty-aiding-enemy-805/ (accessed August 13, 2013).
3Quinnipiac University. "National (US) Poll - August 1, 2013 - Snowden Is Whistle-Blower, Not | Quinnipiac University Connecticut." Quinnipiac University Connecticut. http://www.quinnipiac.edu/institutes-and-centers/polling-institute/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=1930 (accessed August 13, 2013).
4 Labott, Elise, and Barbara Starr. "U.S. to reopen all but one diplomatic post after al Qaeda threat - CNN.com." CNN.com Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News. http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/11/politics/embassies-al-qaeda-threat (accessed August 13, 2013).
6 National Broadcasting Company. "U.S.: More violence during Ramadan - World news - Mideast/N. Africa - Conflict in Iraq | NBC News." Breaking News & Top Stories - World News, US & Local | NBC News. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/14920246/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/us-general-more-violence-during-ramadan/#.Ugp2DWiPtG4 (accessed August 13, 2013).