US National Security Agency

Security threat to US embassies shores up NSA defenders

Lawmakers briefed on the alert said it was the most serious threat for years, helping shore up support for NSA surveillance programmes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 August, 2013, 5:51am

The closure of US missions across the Middle East and Africa over an suspected security threat has been seized on by defenders of the National Security Agency, amid claims that its controversial surveillance programme alerted authorities to "pre-9/11" levels of terrorist chatter.

The US State Department, noting it was acting "out of an abundance of caution," said 19 diplomatic outposts would be shuttered through Saturday. The list includes 15 that were already ordered closed Sunday due to the security fears, as well as four additional posts.

At least 25 US embassies and consular offices had initially been ordered closed Sunday in response to a terror threat, a move lawmakers said was prompted by intercepts of high-ranking Al-Qaeda operatives signaling a major attack.

Intelligence committee members in Washington who had been briefed on the alert said it was the most serious they had seen for years and repeatedly cited the threat during Sunday's political talk shows as a reason to resist growing calls in Congress for reform of the NSA's sweeping powers.

"There has been an awful lot of [terrorist] chatter, which is very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11," said the Republican senator Saxby Chambliss on NBC's Meet the Press. "As we come to the end of Ramadan, which is always an interesting time for terrorists, and the upcoming 9/11 anniversary, this is the most serious threat that I have seen in the last several years."

Chambliss, who was briefed by vice president Joe Biden last week, said he believed the intelligence had been gathered by the NSA using foreign surveillance.

"This is a good indication of why they [the NSA surveillance powers] are so important," he said.

His defence of the NSA was echoed by another Republican, Lindsey Graham. He told CNN: "It is scary ... the NSA programme is proving its worth yet again."

The White House said it took the steps to close the embassies and put US troops on a heightened state of alert after specific intercepts coincided with growing worries about al-Qaida prisoners who escaped in a series of recent jail breaks in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is particularly worried about al-Qaida activists believed to be operating in Yemen, although President Obama last week told the Yemeni president that he believed al-Qaida was on the retreat in the country.

The incoming national security advisor, Susan Rice, chaired a meeting on Saturday at the White House and was expected to further brief Obama, who celebrated his 52nd birthday Sunday.

A number of Congressional leaders concerned by the NSA's powers, particularly regarding domestic surveillance, urged caution over linking the latest terrorism alert.

Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said: "This is not the usual kind of chatter ... it had to be corroborated or come from very reliable sources to take this kind of action.

"There is no indication that the metadata programme [related to domestic surveillance] contributed to information about this particular plot."

The UK Foreign Office said that the British embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, was closed yesterday after being shut all of Sunday, in the wake of an undisclosed security threat. British embassies in other capitals in the Middle East remain open.

France, which closed its Yemen embassy on Sunday, said the mission would reopen on Thursday.

The Guardian, Agence France-Presse