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Parsing PRISM: Gen. Keith Alexander did not claim “dozens of attacks” were prevented.

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Over and over we’ve read that Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, claimed that its massive surveillance program has prevented “dozens” of terrorist attacks. Journalists are careful to report this claim as simply what Alexander said, not as a fact itself — we’re responsible journalists, far too wise in the ways of the world to believe something just because someone in the Administration said it! We know better than that.

Except that he didn’t say it. At least as far as I can tell — if anyone knows of a source for the claim other than the below, please let me know. So far, the only source I’m aware of is the exchange with Sen. Patrick Leahy referred to here.

What Gen. Alexander said was subtly but signicantly different, and he’s probably not surprised to see it being misinterpreted in the NSA’s favor right now. We shouldn’t look to the NSA for a correction on this, but do note that Alexander was careful not to lie. No doubt he would lie, if he had too, but this time we did the work for him.

(Not to take undue credit: this discrepancy was pointed out to me by a friend who prefers to remain unattributed. Later a mutual friend pointed us to this post [1], which has the quotes and the analysis and the video link. I’m really just repeating what that post has already pointed out.)

First of all, Gen. Alexander never said “dozens of attacks”. The dozens he referred to were dozens of call records that contributed to the discovery or disruption of… something, something he calls “events” (apparently elsewhere he’s only talked about two actual attacks disrupted; I don’t have the source for that, but if you do please leave it in the comments).

Watch how this works:

Gen. Keith Alexander: “…it’s dozens of terrorist events that these have helped prevent.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy: “OK, so dozens? Now we collect millions and millions and millions of records through 215, but dozens of them have proved crucial, critical, is that right?”

Gen. Keith Alexander: “For both here and abroad, in disrupting or contributing to the disruption of terrorist attacks.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy: “Out of those millions, dozens have been critical?”

Gen. Keith Alexander: “That’s correct.”

Fascinating. He didn’t say “dozens of attacks”. He does, at first, after a long and clearly thoughtful pause (see the video below), say “dozens of events” once. What’s an “event”? If you disrupt a terrorist meeting, that’s an event. If you disrupt a terrorist eating dinner, is that an event? Maybe. I don’t know. But I do know that when someone in national security wants to defend their work, they use the word “attacks”. Attacks are what matter. When they use the much weaker word “events”, it is not an accident — it is because the stronger word is not available.

Sen. Leahy then gives him the opening to subtly switch the subject to the call records, rather than the events or attacks or whatever they are. Whether Leahy did that by accident or not I don’t know either. But Alexander gratefully takes Leahy’s pivot, to the extent of avoiding even having an explicit subject in his next two sentences — he just grabs Leahy’s antecedent like a life raft and rides it the rest of the way.

He never said dozens of attacks. He very carefully did not say dozens of attacks.

Satisfied that he didn’t say dozens of attacks?

Now let’s look at some headlines:

NSA: ‘Dozens of attacks’ prevented by snooping [2] (The Register)

NSA chief: Surveillance has stopped dozens of potential attacks [3] (Chicago Tribune)

NSA head: Surveillance program prevented dozens of terrorist attacks [4] (Salon)

Alexander: Phone Collection Has Prevented ‘Dozens’ of Attacks [5] (Democracy Now)

And just today I saw it in the New York Times [6] too:

In a robust defense of the phone program, General Alexander said that it had been critical in helping to prevent “dozens of terrorist attacks” both in the United States and abroad…

Current score:

Experienced Washington NSA directors:   1  
Experienced Washington Senators:   N/A  
Experienced Washington journalists:   0  

Here’s that video: