Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, confirmed yesterday that the U.S. intelligence community's ability to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists led to the arrest of three jihadists alleged to have planned attacks on American interests in Germany.
The admission came during an exchange with Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee during a hearing on confronting the terrorist threat six years after 9-11. It deserves to be quoted at length.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Admiral, before we broke for August we had quite a go-round about FISA, and we adopted legislation. I wanted to ask you to speak for a moment about that, and if you can in this open setting, there have been some press suggestions, media suggestions that the U.S. through your office was able to assist the German government in the apprehension of those plotting terrorist attacks against American targets in Germany -- could you comment on that specifically and more generally on how this system we adopted in July --early August is going?
MR. McCONNELL: Yes, sir. Thank you, Senator. With the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act under consideration for updating, we found ourselves in a position of actually going backwards, losing capability, because of the interpretations of the law. And --
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Right, by courts.
MR. McCONNELL: Yes, sir. By the FISA Court looking at the requests it was actually taking us too much time, and because of the interpretations, we were losing ground. So the approach we took was to ask for basically three things.
First of all, do not require the intelligence community to obtain a warrant when we're targeting a foreigner, a terrorist in a foreign country. We had found ourselves in the position, based on the interpretation of the law, we were being asked to get warrants against terrorists operating in a foreign country. So we asked for relief for that.
The second thing, for those that -- private entities that assisted us, we needed to have some protection for them with regard to liability. And the third thing, quite frankly, was in the interests of protecting civil liberties and the privacy of Americans we felt it was appropriate to be required, as we were in the old FISA legislation, to have a warrant for any time we target a U.S. person. That would include even a foreigner in this country suspected of being a terrorist. So we thought it had the right balance.
It was passed, as you well know, and we're very pleased with that. And we're better prepared now to continue our mission; specifically Germany, significant contributions. It allowed us to see and understand all the connections with --
SEN. LIEBERMAN: The newly adopted law facilitated that during August?
MR. McCONNELL: Yes, sir, it did. The connections to al Qaeda, the connections specifically to what's referred to as IJU, the Islamic Jihad Union, an affiliate of al Qaeda. Because we could understand it, we could help our partners through a long process of monitoring and observation, realizing that the perpetrators had actually obtained explosive liquids, hydrogen peroxide, which they would condense -- or try to condense to an explosive.
And so at the right time, when Americans and German facilities were being targeted, the German authorities decided to move.
According to a four part series in Germany's Der Spiegel, U.S. intelligence was instrumental in subverting the German jihadist plot.
Operation Alberich began last October, when the US National Security Agency, the NSA, began intercepting suspicious emails between Germany and Pakistan. It ended last week in the central German Sauerland region, with the arrests of two German converts to Islam, Fritz Gelowicz, 28, the son of a southern German doctor, and 22-year-old Daniel S., who had learned how to handle weapons during his military service in the western German city of Saarlouis. His neighbors in nearby Saarbrücken had noticed that he prayed to Allah "often and very loudly." The third man arrested in the sting was Adem Y., a 28-year-old Turkish national. The trio was caught in the act of mixing chemical ingredients to make explosives at a vacation house in the mountainous Sauerland region.
In between the initial NSA e-mail intercepts and the German authorities arrest of the three suspects, another significant display of cooperation between the United States and Germany was the creation of a joint CIA-German task force as part of Operation Alberich.
Michael Chertoff is quoted as saying that cooperation between the United States and Germany was "the closest it's ever been" during the operation.