How the NSA’s high-tech surveillance helped Europeans catch terrorists
The debate about National Security Agency eavesdropping has left European investigators bemused. US technology collects mountains of data that often aids their cases, they say. But there's no substitute for real human spying
PARIS — In 2007, Belgian police were keeping close watch on Malika el-Aroud, a fierce al-Qaida ideologue whose dark eyes smoldered above her veil.
The Moroccan-born Aroud had met Osama bin Laden while living in al-Qaida’s stronghold in Afghanistan. She gained exalted status when her husband posed as a journalist to blow up the renowned Ahmed Shah Massoud, the chief of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, just two days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Aroud later returned to Europe, remarried and started an Islamist website that attracted a group of French and Belgian extremists. Led by her second husband, Moez Garsallaoui, half-a-dozen of them went to Waziristan, where they joined several thousand al-Qaida fighters, including a Latino convert from Long Island, learned to make bombs and plotted against the West with terrorist kingpins.
The authorities — American, Belgian, French, Swiss, Italian, Turkish — were all over them.
U.S. surveillance had tracked their radicalization, their emails from Pakistan, even calls made to their mothers before they trudged through snowy Iranian mountains. An intercepted photo that Garsallaoui sent his wife showed him holding a grenade launcher. He claimed to have killed U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and described his escape from a missile strike: “I came close to dying.”
The militants took precautions, changing laptops and using Internet cafes. But they were no match for top-secret, real-time NSA intercepts. Some of the monitoring was approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“We were inside their computers,” a source said.
As debate rages in the United States about the National Security Agency’s sweeping data-mining programs, I’ve been on a reporting trip overseas, where I’ve been talking to sources about the controversy and how differing U.S. and European approaches to counterterrorism can complement each other.
On Tuesday, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, told a congressional committee that his agency’s surveillance programs helped stop more than 50 terror plots in the U.S. and abroad. Five years ago, I was based in Europe covering terrorism, running from one attack or aborted plot to another. As the Brussels investigation shows, these cases frequently combined the high-tech reach of the U.S. counterterror apparatus with the street skills of foreign agencies. 
In November 2008, Pakistani and U.S. agents swooped into Kandahar and nabbed Bryant Neal Viñas, the convert from Long Island and al-Qaida militant. He cooperated with the FBI, admitting that he discussed an attack on the Long Island Rail Road with top al-Qaida figures.
Days later, a drone strike killed Rashid Rauf, a Pakistani-British operative who helped plan the London transport bombings and the “liquid bomb” plot to blow up planes in 2006. Three Belgian and French militants returned home, where police arrested them after intercepts picked up menacing chatter.
Viñas pleaded guilty. Aroud went to prison, and investigators believe her second husband Garsallaoui died in the land of jihad.
Other cases benefited from close cooperation. In Germany in 2007, U.S. monitoring detected a suspect checking the draft file of an email box at an Internet cafe in Stuttgart. Armed with that lead, German security services deployed surveillance at numerous Internet cafes in the city. The investigation resulted in the dismantling of a Pakistan-trained group plotting to attack U.S. military targets in Germany.
As several European sources told me, if an extremist in Marseilles was talking about nefarious activities with an extremist in Geneva over the Internet, chances were good that U.S. intelligence agencies would find out and inform the French and Swiss. Not because of sources on the ground, but because U.S. agencies could detect the communications through computer servers in the United States.
The reaction here to the U.S. debate has been bemused.
European terrorist hunters seem surprised that the revelation of the NSA data-monitoring programs is big news. The technological capacities of U.S. agencies have been an integral component of dramatically improved teamwork against terrorism during the past decade.
“In the fight against terrorism, intelligence-sharing is essential,” said Jean-Louis Bruguière, who served for more than two decades as a top French antiterror magistrate before retiring in 2007. (He declined to discuss the NSA’s role in investigations.) “Cooperation with American services has always been trusting and excellent.”
At the same time, some European experts see the furor as a sign that the strengths of the American giant intertwine with its weaknesses. U.S. agencies devote huge resources to sophisticated technology to the detriment of analysis and human spying, they say. As a result, they say, U.S. agencies sometimes appear overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information.
“The problem is not collecting information, it’s understanding it,” said Alain Bauer, a well-connected French criminologist who has served as a presidential adviser. “What is the sense of such programs? They are too big. They will not work. We are a former colonial empire. We know the value of human intelligence. It is more efficient and less expensive than technological fetishism. 
Fortunately, we do not have enough money to do it the other way.”
Spy agencies such as France’s DCRI and Britain’s MI5 have long experience cultivating human sources. In early 2008, Spain’s Civil Guard broke up a plot to bomb the Barcelona subway thanks to a French informant. He was a Pakistani who infiltrated the network in the training camps and traveled with the would-be bombers to Spain. He sounded the alarm when the attack seemed imminent.
I have met many American agents who are adept at operating in foreign cultures. Diversity adds value. U.S. agencies can send Pakistani-Americans to work in Islamabad and Mexican-born officers to Mexico City.
Nonetheless, U.S. agencies have less experience with Islamic terrorism at home. That’s partly the result of a good thing: Overall, the United States does a better job than most countries of integrating immigrants, including those of Muslim heritage.
In Europe, decades of religious, nationalist and political violence have bred an arsenal of counterterror tools. The security forces have developed extensive knowledge of large Muslim populations with subgroups involved in crime, extremism or both. The security forces recruit informants, interpreters, analysts and investigators from those communities.
As Bruguière pointed out, France staved off Islamic terrorist violence from 1996 to 2012, when an extremist named Mohamed Merah killed seven people in shooting attacks on French soldiers and a Jewish school in Toulouse.
“Gathering intelligence is the linchpin of the fight against terrorism,” Bruguière said. “In France, the emphasis is on humint [human intelligence]. But technological intelligence has not been neglected, in fact it has been notably reinforced.”
To be sure, the Europeans have experienced failures. The transport bombings in London in 2005 and Madrid in 2004 took place despite the fact that some of the suspects had been under surveillance.
Though sectors of the European media and public complain about the prospect that the NSA might spy on them, at home they are accustomed to invasive practices. In Italy, electronic surveillance routinely targets tens of thousands of citizens. Italian law has made it easy to wiretap and hard to do undercover operations. In 2010, the Italian justice ministry reported that law enforcement had monitored more than 112,000 phones the previous year.
In France, political parties across the spectrum accept the existence of a vast grid of domestic spying. In 2004, I went to see a police intelligence chief in a French city. It was a Thursday in August. I wanted to know if he was concerned that a newly announced ban on Islamic headscarves in schools might incite unrest when the academic year began.
“I don’t expect any problems,” he said. “But tomorrow is Friday. It’s a good day to gauge the mood based on the sermons at the mosques, especially the fundamentalist ones. Come back tomorrow afternoon, and I will have a better idea.”
The next day he repeated his assessment, which was accurate. It was clear that the police monitored — presumably with a mix of human and technical methods — Muslim houses of worship, including the clandestine prayer rooms in basements and garages frequented by hard-core extremists. Each week, the intelligence web collected and analyzed Friday sermons and generated a report that was on the chief’s desk in a few hours. 
The U.S. reaction to NSA data mining strikes my European interlocutors as somewhat academic — a debate about potential rather than actual abuse. They don’t see a scandal.
“Something that is more dangerous to individual liberties and data protection than the secret American metadata programs, such as Echelon or PRISM,” said Bruguière, “is the insufficiently controlled commercial availability of innovative technological products such as social networks or the Google Earth and Google Street programs, which can be easily diverted toward criminal or terrorist ends.” 
Some here see quite another problem: They think the U.S. intelligence community has overreacted to Islamic terrorism, acting as if the networks have the dimensions and discipline of Cold War-era state adversaries. That can cause excessive rigidity and secrecy.
A veteran European police investigator told me an anecdote. He once shared intelligence with a U.S. counterpart about a terrorism case. Some time later, he talked to the American official again. The conversation led him to believe that the U.S. agency had misunderstood or misinterpreted the intelligence.
The investigator recalled: “I told him that we needed to go over a couple of points. He said: ‘I can’t talk to you about it any further.’ I said, ‘But it’s about a lead we gave you.’ He told me: ‘Sorry, it doesn’t matter. It’s secret now.’”
The European investigator speaks Arabic and has spent years on the front lines. He says the U.S. emphasis on technology can be counterproductive, distancing the watchers from their target.
“In our work, there is no substitute for this,” he said, gesturing across a cafe table. “Face-to-face contact. Empathy.”
Before joining ProPublica, Sebastian Rotella worked at the Los Angeles Times, where he was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006 for his coverage of terrorism and Muslim communities in Europe.



RTI Judgement Series: Mobile tower erected without any permission

Reliance Infratel erected a mobile tower with power genset on the rooftop of a building in Delhi. There was no record of any permission, except a deposit of Rs1 lakh given to MCD. This is the 117th in a series of important judgements given by former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi that can be used or quoted in an RTI application

The Central Information Commission (CIC), while allowing an appeal, directed the additional commissioner for engineering at Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to provide information related with erection of mobile tower on rooftop of a building to the applicant and the Commission on steps taken before 10 June 2009.


While giving this judgement on 19 September 2011, Shailesh Gandhi, the then Central Information Commissioner, said, “ is possible that the cell tower has never been given any permission, and no stability certificate may have been given. It appears that the MCD officials would be colluding and illegal cell tower being in existence.”


New Delhi resident BB Khurana, on 6 October 2008, sought information regarding installation of mobile phone tower on rooftop along with generator set by Reliance Infratel from the Public Information Officer (PIO) and superintending engineer, MCD. Here is the information he sought under the RTI Act and the reply provided by the PIO...


1. Please give the copies of all affidavits, correspondence etc with Reliance Infocomm from the day one of request to final orders from your office.

PIO's reply: As per the records available with Building Department, West Zone.  The file for permission to install telecom tower on the terrace of property noFD-38, Tagore Garden was submitted to this office on dated 5 January 2004 vide diary no3947 and amount of Rs1 lakh was deposited vide G-8 No440014 dated 16 January 2004. Best efforts have been made to trace the file but the same could not be traced.


2. Please give copy of permission along with diary number and dispatch no. of your office, since you were the Sanctioning Authority.   

PIO's reply: As above


3. Since you had followed the norms issued vide the circular no. TP/G/5462/03 dated 20/11/03.  Please give your observations on point 7 of the said circular for FD-38 Tagore Garden, New Delhi-110027.       

PIO's reply: As above


4. You are further requested to give all the copies of circulars for installation to Cellular Mobile Phone before date or after date of installation of Reliance Tower of FD-38 Tagore Garden, New Delhi 110027.

PIO's reply: Photocopies had already been supplied.


Khurana, the applicant, not satisfied with the reply provided by the PIO, filed his first appeal. In his order, the First Appellate Authority (FAA) said, “the concerned file related to case is not available, documents giving sanction to be obtained from the party concerned which has installed the telecom tower. The executive engineer (B)/WZ is directed that all copies of correspondence with Reliance Infratel, which has since installed a cellular mobile tower, be obtained and copy of the same be provided to the appellant by 29 December 2008.”


Still not satisfied with the order from the FAA, the applicant approached the Commission with his second appeal.


During the hearing before Mr Gandhi, the then CIC, the PIO stated that the file relating to the installation of cell tower antenna on the roof terrace of SF of the property no.FD-38, Tagore Garden, New Delhi was not available. There was no permission on record but there was only record of Rs1 lakh deposited to the public authority on 16 January 2004.


“Based on these facts,” Mr Gandhi noted, “it is possible that the cell tower has never been given any permission, and no stability certificate may have been given. It appears that the MCD officials would be colluding and illegal cell tower being in existence.”


The PIO also showed a letter addressed to the manager of Reliance Infratel stating that the tower is in existence without any approval from MCD. This letter was dated 19 May 2009 and has stated that if approval is not shown to the MCD within seven days, action would be initiated (against the company).


The PIO further stated that this letter has been given but no action has been taken or initiated so far. 


Mr Gandhi said, “This appears to be a grave matter with an impact on the safety of citizens and it is a very sorry state of affair that MCD is unwilling to do anything.”


While allowing the appeal, the CIC then directed Naresh Kumar, additional commissioner for engineering at MCD, to provide information to Khurana and the Commission on the steps taken in this matter before 10 June 2009. 




Decision No. CIC/SG/A/2009/000834/3554

Appeal No. CIC/SG/A/2009/000834



Appellant                                            : BB Khurana

                                                            New Delhi-110027


Respondent                                        : VR Bansal

                                                              The Suptdg. Engineer-I & PIO

                                                              Municipal Corporation of Delhi

                                                              Office of the Suptdg. Engineer-I (WZ),

                                                              Vishal Enclave, Rajouri Garden,

                                                              New Delhi-110027.



nagesh kini

3 years ago

Thank you for this report.
We, at Mogul Lane, Mahim Mumbai, are seriously opposing the installation of a mobile tower within the compound of the Telephone Colony in thickly residential residential area.
We have immediate STOP WORK order from the GM MTNL who has approved the installation.

Rupee plunges 130 paise to hit new all-time low of 60 against US dollar

Weak domestic fundamentals such as record current account deficit and high inflation concerns too put pressure on the rupee, dealers said


The Indian rupee on Thursday plunged by a whopping 130 paisa to hit lifetime low of 59.93 against the US dollar in the early trade on the Interbank Foreign Exchange on strong demand for the American currency from banks and importers. The rupee hit an all-time low of 59.97 per dollar in the spot market while it struck 60.17 in the futures segment.

Besides, the dollar's strength against major currencies overseas on comments by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke that the central bank may scale back its monetary stimulus programme later this year weighed on the domestic unit, dealers said.

However, according to Credit Suisse, the statement from Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), and chairman Bernanke's press conference were more hawkish than expected. "The FOMC seems simultaneously anxious to start slowing the pace of its asset purchases and reluctant to tighten policy too early or too quickly. Market participants seem much more attuned to the new news of 'tapered purchases' than the old news of a large Fed balance sheet," it said in a note.

Raghuram Rajan, chief economic advisor to the finance ministry, tried to calm the markets while admitting that the government had limited resources and the reasons for the fall in domestic currency were more global than local.

Speaking with reporters, he said, "We have a range of instruments. We can call on them as and when needed. We will not flag them. The ministry of finance, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) are watching developments closely and would take action appropriate. We should not let ourselves to be led by the market into directions we do not want to go".

The domestic currency had earlier hits its all-time intra-day low of Rs58.98 on 11th June. The rupee had gained 7 paisa to close at Rs58.70 against the dollar in the previous session on the back of recovery in stocks and fresh dollar selling by exporters.
Kuntal Sur, director, KPMG in India, said, "The rupee has been under pressure since last month and has lost around  10% during this period on the back of heavy foreign currency outflows as foreign investors withdrew heavily from debt market  and also from equity market. The ballooning current account deficit (CAD) and cloudy outlook of reforms have added to the local currency's woes. Outlook of the currency is expected to remain weak till the structural measures are taken to improve CAD and improvements of sentiments foreign investors".

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of Planning Commission, however expressed surprise over market reaction to the Fed's statement. He said, "Currencies in all emerging nations are being impacted. For Indian rupee, the CAD is also responsible for large depreciation and it is up to RBI to decide on intervening in the currency market."

According to dealers, weak domestic fundamentals such as record current account deficit and high inflation concerns too put pressure on the rupee.

In a report, Mecklai Financial said, "60.00 should be a psychological level for the rupee wherein RBI may step in and ensure that it does not depreciate to a large extent from hereon. The rupee has been on a depreciation mode ever since it hit an high of 53.67 in this year."

Meanwhile, as an aftereffect, the BSE benchmark Sensex also closed below the 19,000 level, plunging 526 points, or 2.7%, to 18,719.3.


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