Critics ask if the information on al-Qaeda terror threats in Yemen could have been obtained in a less-invasive manner

U.S. embassies in West Asia are to remain closed for the rest of the week as supporters of the National Security Agency (NSA)’s sweeping surveillance powers used the unspecified terror alert to bolster the case against reining in the controversial measures.

A privacy group questioned the publicity given to the latest alert after the State Department announced on Sunday evening that the number of embassies and consulates closed “out of an abundance of caution” would be increased, with some remaining shut for up to a week.

It follows the alleged interception of unspecified al-Qaeda terror threats in Yemen, which intelligence committee members in Congress have been told were collected overseas using powers granted to the NSA under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Most criticism of the NSA following revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden has focused on its domestic surveillance powers under section 215 of the Patriot Act, but the NSA’s supporters seized on the terror intercepts as a way to defend the beleaguered agency from criticism of this bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, which is unlikely to have played any role in the current al-Qaeda intercepts.

Republican senator Saxby Chambliss said the NSA had identified threats that were the most serious for years and akin to levels of “terrorist chatter” picked up before 9/11.

“These [NSA] programs are controversial, we understand that,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “But they are also very important . . . If we did not have these programs, then we simply would not be able to listen in on the bad guys.”

Senator Lindsey Graham added: “To the members of Congress who want to reform the NSA program, great. If you want to gut it, you make us much less safe, and you’re putting our nation at risk. We need to have policies in place that can deal with the threats that exist, and they are real, and they are growing.” But the widespread linking of the latest terror alerts with the debate over the domestic powers of the NSA has begun to raise concern among privacy campaigners, who fear ulterior political motives.

'Culture of fear'

Amie Stepanovich, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said: “The NSA’s choice to publish these threats at this time perpetuates a culture of fear and unquestioning deference to surveillance in the United States.” News of the fresh terror alert came as Congress looked increasingly likely to pursue fresh attempts to limit the NSA’s domestic powers when it returns in September.

“The NSA takes in threat information every day. You have to ask, why now? What makes this information different?” added Ms. Stepanovich.

“Too much of what we hear from the government about surveillance is either speculation or sweeping assertions that lack corroboration. The question isn’t if these programs used by this NSA can find legitimate threats, it’s if the same threats couldn’t be discovered in a less invasive manner. This situation fails to justify the NSA’s unchecked access to our personal information.”

Late on Sunday, the State Department confirmed the closures would continue for several days.

“Given that a number of our embassies and consulates were going to be closed in accordance with local custom and practice for the bulk of the week for the Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan, and out of an abundance of caution, we’ve decided to extend the closure of several embassies and consulates including a small number of additional posts,” the department said in a statement.

“This is not an indication of a new threat stream, merely an indication of our commitment to exercise caution and take appropriate steps to protect our employees including local employees and visitors to our facilities.”

© Guardian News Service

More In: World | International | News