The Sunday morning news shows are all abuzz with the news that several U.S. embassies and consulates are closed on Sunday as a precautionary measure against a possible attack. Here’s what you need to know about the threat and how it is affecting the the national debate about government surveillance and protecting our diplomats:
What embassies are affected?
The U.S. Department of State announced late last week that 25 embassies throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia will be closed on Sun. August 4, 2013. Only the date of the closures was announced at first, leading many to realize that the embassies normally open on Sundays are almost solely those in majority Muslim countries. A map of the closed locations can be seen here:
Why are they closed?
According to the State Department, the closure is due to a possible threat of attack on one or more of the facilities in the coming days and weeks. “Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now [Aug. 2] and the end of August,” the Department’s travel alert read.
Sources within the administration suggest that the threat is possibly emanating from Yemen, specifically from the off-shoot of the core Al Qaeda group known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It’s AQAP that planned the failed Christmas Day underwear bombing in 2009 and was the originator of a foiled terror plot which the Associated Press reported in 2011. The likelihood that AQAP is involved in the threat would explain an increase of suspected drone strikes in Yemen over the past several days, taken as Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi visits the United States.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) on Meet the Press today confirmed that the threat was a serious one. “Vice President Biden gave us a classified briefing last week,” Durbin told host David Gregory, in which 25 embassies were identified as particularly vulnerable. According to Durbin’s office, this briefing included a bipartisan group of senators, though the full list of attendees wasn’t available at the time this article was published.
How did intelligence officials learn about the threats?
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Ranking Member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC’s David Gregory that the threats emerged from intelligence collected using the National Security Agency (NSA)’s controversial surveillance programs, several of which were revealed to the public in June. “If we did not have these programs, we would not be able to listen in on the bad guys,” Chambliss said.
However, Chambliss’ claim is conflating two separate programs the NSA currently runs, as the program used to obtain this information, under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is not the one that’s most frequently under fire. That section relates solely to the collection of foreign intelligence, though many concerns exist over the U.S. data that gets swept up as well. Instead, the majority of the ire towards the NSA has been focused on the program run under Section 215 of the Act, which allows the collection of vast amounts of metadata from American phone companies. It’s the latter program that Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and others have spoken out against.
Does this have anything to do with Benghazi?
In some sense, the embassy closures have everything to do with Benghazi. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on a diplomatic outpost in Libya, the discussion about the vulnerability of diplomats in conflict zones reached new heights. While many on the Hill have chosen to focus on the conspiracies of an administration cover-up, the actual debate over diplomatic security levels and whether preventative actions could have mitigated some of the casualties remains less prevalent but ongoing. As Durbin noted on Meet the Press, the current Senate version of the FY 2014 Defense Appropriations bill includes an additional $48 million in embassy security funding.
However, some people are never satisfied. Former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum claimed on Meet the Press that the closures show the Obama administration’s weakness in the face of extremism. “I’m sure if you’re looking at it from a terrorist perspective, you say here’s an administration that’s pulling back — that’s timid — and an opportunity to go after additional embassies,” Santorum said.
How long will the embassies remain under threat?
While the embassies are definitely closed today, nobody seems to know what the next step is given the open-ended nature of the State Department warning. No details are currently being provided over which locations are the real target, which may be intentional or due to a simple lack of knowledge. Nor are the tactics that are being planned known. This leaves the Obama administration in a difficult position, as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell explained earlier today. “If there is no attack today, they have to decide today whether to expand this to some places in Europe, I’m told,” Mitchell said, adding that they have also decide “whether this is so actionable that they have to keep these embassies closed.”
The State Department announced that of the original embassies and consulates closed, nine would reopen on Monday for normal operations, including the facilities in Algeria, Iraq, and Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. Several other buildings, however, would close and join the remaining embassies in staying closed for the remaining week. Among the buildings added to the list include several in sub-Saharan Africa: Rwanda, Burundi, Madagascar, and Mauritius.
The New York Times meanwhile reported that the closures were prompted after the U.S. intercepted an electronic communication between the head of core Al Qaeda in Pakistan and the leader of AQAP. “This was significant because it was the big guys talking, and talking about very specific timing for an attack or attacks,” said one American official to the Times.