Ten talking points the NSA uses to justify its spying

The World
NSA Spying Protest

Activists from the Internet Party of Ukraine smash a pumpkin with headphones as they stage a demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy in Kiev November 1, 2013.

REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

The US government often taps into our collective fear when it defends, supports, or justifies its spying — even if what it's doing includes torture, hacking into our email, or more recently, tapping the phones of foreign leaders.

But it's hard to come out and say that bluntly. So officials use carefully-crafted messaging. 

Al Jazeera America's Jason Leopold recently obtained a master list of such messages, known as "talking points," developed by the National Security Agency. The documents suggest to leaders "sound bites that resonate." Leopold says two main themes run through the talking points: 9/11 and the phrase "connect-the-dots."

Here are 10 talking points obtained by Leopold and Jason Smathers through Freedom of Information Act requests. They were assembled from lists developed for different purposes — for the White House, Congress, and leaks to the media. Leopold feels that people need to see these, so they'll be skeptical of what they may hear from government officials or see in media reports.

  1. I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent. 
  2. After 9/11, it was determined the Intelligence community failed to connect the dots.
  3. Post-9/11, we made several changes and added a number of capabilities to enable us to connect the dots.
  4. These programs have helped us connect the dots.
  5. The events of September 11th, 2001, occurred, in part, because of a failure on the part of our government to "connect the dots."
  6. I can say the Program must continue. It has detected terrorist plots that could have resulted in death or injury to Americans both home and abroad.
  7. The President is committed to protecting the privacy rights of all US citizens.
  8. The terrorist threat to this country is real. We need to do everything possible to make our nation safe, and we need to do it in a way that preserves our civil liberties.
  9. I have been briefed on the Program and stood on the operations floor at NSA to see first-hand how vital it is to the security of our country and how carefully it is being run.
  10.  The Program is not "data mining," it targets only international communications closely connected to al Qa'ida or an affiliated group.

Here are examples of US officials using the talking points in public:

 — Leopold says that NSA chief General Keith Alexander used a "slightly different version of a prepared NSA statement invoking 9/11 when he testified before Congress on June 18, 2013, in defense of the NSA's surveillance programs." The statement read, "I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent." Alexander also used the phrase "connect the dots."

 —  PRI's The World noticed that Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, managed to work in both 9/11 and "connect the dots" in an October 20, 2013 Op-Ed written for USA Today in defense of domestic spying and the NSA program that tracks phone records. She wrote, "This program helps 'connect the dots' — the main failure of our intelligence before 9/11."