It is, perhaps, inevitable that the decision to close U.S. embassies and diplomatic posts in certain parts of the world due to intercepted "chatter" among suspected terrorists is being viewed with skepticism in some quarters. One writer for Britain's The Guardian said people could be forgiven for thinking the move was "convenient" in light of the recent controversy surrounding the National Security Agency and its massive data gathering operations.
The criticisms are evidence that NSA leaker Edward Snowden has managed to put a dent in the credibility of U.S. intelligence gathering, but such cynicism can be dangerous. The U.S. and its allies have little choice but to take the warnings of intelligence agencies seriously, and in this case the administration has been straight-forward in detailing the reasons it took the threats seriously.
Meanwhile, a comment by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, that the closures make the U.S. look "like a bunch of cowards," was irresponsible and potentially harmful to the nation's image abroad.
The world can't afford to equivocate when it comes to choosing sides in the battle against terrorism. Intelligence, by its nature, is secretive. The nation has a right, and even an obligation, to debate the scope of the NSA's data-gathering operations as they relate to the constitutional rights of Americans to be free from illegal search and seizure. It needs to discuss whether the secret court that grants permission for the gathering of information should be established differently or more closely monitored. But it can't afford to lose focus of the larger battle against forces determined to destroy it.
Americans also ought to consider what it means that al-Qaida, stricken by repeated attacks from U.S. forces that have killed high-level officials, including Osama bin Laden, remains a threat large enough to prompt embassy closures and an international travel warning. Terrorism thrives on being able to make a small band of zealots appear to be massive and powerful by the damage inflicted, but al-Qaida has proven to be resilient even by those standards.
In this case, intelligence sources said they intercepted a communication between two of al-Qaida's top world leaders, who said they "wanted to do something big" on Sunday to mark a Muslim holiday known as Laylat al-Qadr. The target for the attack was unclear but thought to be Yemen. But the threat was broad enough to prompt closures throughout the region. Sources said a third al-Qaida leader said he wanted to conduct a suicide mission. Officials said they obtained the same information from a second source. Had the information been obtained only from low-level operatives, the administration said it likely would not have closed diplomatic posts. Officials said the "chatter" intercepted was similar to what was heard on the eve of 9/11, when the United States was not as attuned to terrorist threats.
The 9/11 attacks must remain bright in the memories of all who are charged with protecting national security. It is unlikely this latest intelligence had anything at all to do with the domestic spying controversy at the NSA. As much as possible, the United States and its allies should separate debates over rights and liberties from what should be the undisputed need to protect the nation's homeland and interests abroad from its enemies.