CIA Head John Brennan Says CIA Failed To Prevent Terrorist Attacks Because Of Encrypted Communications

from the now-he's-just-fucking-with-everyone dept

CIA boss John Brennan — perhaps still rattled from being put on the spot by Sen. Ron Wyden at a recent hearing — is now just saying whatever the hell he wants with little regard for facts.

As has been noted here in several posts, the terrorist attacks in Paris had nothing to do with encryption (or the Snowden leaks), although many government officials (and the French government itself) were quick to demonize both.

The facts:

  • The Paris attackers communicated mostly through unencrypted SMS.
  • That the attacks were carried out successfully appeared to be the result of an intelligence failure, rather than the terrorists “going dark.”
  • Evidence shows terrorists’ communications methods have gone largely unaltered despite the Snowden leaks, meaning intelligence agencies still have the access to communications they’ve had for years.

Never mind all that, says John Brennan. It may have been an intelligence failure — but only because encryption got in the way.

Speaking on the channel’s 60 Minutes program, which was broadcast on Sunday, Brennan said that the agency and its allies were aware of covert ISIS activity in the lead up to the attacks in the French capital, however attempts to stop it was foiled by “sophisticated” use of encrypted Internet communication.


“We knew the system was blinking red,” Brennan said “We knew just in the days before that ISIL was trying to carry out something. But the individuals involved have been able to take advantage of the newly available means of communication that are walled off from law enforcement officials.”

Brennan’s narrative runs contrary to the known facts about the Paris attacks. While it may be true some of the planning occurred using “sophisticated encrypted communications,” the evidence collected shows the attacks were put into motion using unencrypted text messages, and the phones themselves were tracked by law enforcement. On top of that, the alleged mastermind behind the attacks — Abdelhamid Abaaoud — routinely used no encryption whatsoever, which led to an earlier attack of his being thwarted in Belgium.

Brennan has not been too vocal on the encryption issue to date, most likely due to the fact that his agency is supposedly limited to “looking outward” — foreign intelligence only. As such, its concerns about US citizens using encrypted means of communications should be minimal.

But he was also one of the first to use the Paris attacks as an opportunity to attack actions taken by tech companies to “undercut” intelligence capabilities, as well as claim Snowden’s leaks were resulting in terrorists routing around surveillance efforts.

As for Brennan’s “sorry not sorry” admission of failure, he’s covered his agency’s posterior by claiming it was a result of communications being out of reach, rather than anything his agency failed to do. But he does promise his agency will “work harder” in the future. Depending on how much you believe Brennan’s narrative, that’s either a tacit admission his agency didn’t work hard enough last time or that the future will be much brighter because everyone’s now giving 110% to the War on Terror. Let’s hope it’s the latter, as Brennan apparently believes an attack on the US by ISIS is inevitable.

The CIA chief also said ISIS is attempting to orchestrate an attack and “find its mark” on the U.S.

“I’m expecting them to try to put in place the operatives, the material or whatever else that they need to do or to incite people to carry out these attacks, clearly,” he said. “So I believe that their attempts are inevitable. I don’t think their successes necessarily are.”

If Brennan is sincere in this belief, it’s likely we’ll soon see him joining Comey in calling for domestic backdoors in encryption.

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Comments on “CIA Head John Brennan Says CIA Failed To Prevent Terrorist Attacks Because Of Encrypted Communications”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Why? Better to ask why not?

Why wouldn’t he lie and claim that encryption was the reason, rather than a failure of those responsible? He knows that the very same groups giving him air time are too spineless to call him on his ‘least untruthful statements’, so why would he bother with the truth when a lie serves him much better?

Anonymous Coward says:

…“So I believe that their attempts are inevitable. I don’t think their successes necessarily are.”…

Success not needed. If the authorities react to a threat by altering anything, including constitutional rights and responsibilities, the terrorists win. And they don’t even have to execute an operation; merely staging assets or threatening to stage is enough.

David says:

Re: Re:

Well, with a mandatory systematic backdoor in all U.S.-software based communication clandestine enough to warrant encryption, will terrorists be more or less likely to thwart the technology-reliant work of the CIA?

Every backdoor is eventually on the market, and we are talking about a system-endemic backdoor here that will not be patchable.

I mean, it’s like thwarting a robbery by shooting yourself preemptively in the foot.

Zonker says:

Re: Re:

I was going to say it being ISIL they probably used an Arabic language, but that would likely require the use of Unicode instead of the outdated “American Standard” character set. But since our government probably haven’t updated their computing technology since the 1980’s, their computers probably wouldn’t have Unicode support.

Thus I believe the “encryption” used was actually Unicode.

Ninja (profile) says:

If anything, this imbecile debate on encryption is surely bringing it mainstream. Which means otherwise dumb terrorists will possibly, probably start using it. Obviously using doesn’t mean being safe (encryption is but one of the steps to remain hidden). At some point they will err. And only focused investigative work will catch it.

If intelligence agencies were in fact intelligent they would keep a low profile. Unless, of course, the intention is other than protecting the innocents. How much went into defense contracts last year again?

TasMot (profile) says:

SO, what he is saying is that the US should pass a law that the WHOLE WORLD must not use encryption of any sort (including words with special meanings) so that he can stop terrorist attacks all over the world.

Oh, wait, he doesn’t have jurisdiction over the whole world. Let’s just make US citizens less safe by creating a backdoor in ALL US encryption so that terrorists can steal all our money because they can see everything that is going on across the Internet, phones, and corporate networks (because of course no encrypted corporate VPNs allowed).

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I understand it is just a technicality, but the CIA’s ‘jurisdiction’ IS the rest of the world. They are not allowed to operate in the US of A, but are, in the rest of the world. Now let’s remember that this is a wholly US point of view as a large part of the rest of the world despises the US, in a large part because of the arrogant actions of the CIA, in the rest of the world, where they believe, falsely, that they have actual jurisdiction.

JBDragon says:

Re: Re:

Once there’s a BackDoor that the U.S. Government says has to be, what is to stop say China saying we want that same backdoor access!!! Quite frankly any country after that. Look at BlackBerry. They’ve admitted to a BackDoor and even to countries they gave access to!!!

So because of at most 1% of the evil people, everyone should just give up their security and be spied on!!! The99% can be screwed over in one way or another.

The end result will be Encryption used, NOT from the U.S, installed on cheap Android phones, where the only people with real encryption are the terrorists, Or the Child Molesters. you have to throw them in also.

Do Child Molesters send each other messages on what they’re doing? That’s what they make it sound like is going on. This Terrorist Attack shooting in CA, They didn’t stop that. They have no idea. They let these criminals into the country in the first place. They’re now DEAD and still want to spy on the dead peoples phone. Cry me a river. Should have done your job in the first place and not allowed these people into the country. Then it wouldn’t have happened in the first place.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Pardon My Encryption

So the CIA cannot decrypt plaintext French?

No, silly, there was a haystack in the way. It’s a very sophisticated system of cron jobs running searches using picklists and weighting factors, all of which find hits all the time, and it can fill up your inbox in no time. With all the meetings reporting on what it’s doing or will do, who’s got time to view the results? We’re busy here.

C says:

So should we ban encryption for communication only?

When people talk about encryption they paint with a wide brush, as if all kinds of encryption fall under the same jurisdiction.

I set up credit card processing for a living. Credit card transaction data is encrypted. Should we instead be sending this data over the internet in plain text instead?

Encryption is the foundation of security on the internet. Any attempt to undermine encryption is absolute horse shit.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Of the People, By the People...looking for some people

Isn’t the real question, ‘Who’s agenda is he flouting?’. Simply ‘the governments’ ‘ doesn’t really answer anything. Of course the government wants to preserve itself and increase its power. That is presumably very natural, though sad and antithetical to democratic ideals.

There seems though to be a driving force behind things that goes beyond greed and thirst for psychotic levels of power. Conspiracy theorists and tin foil hatters would tell us there is a Star Chamber. Well, maybe there is, in some form.

The problem is the mounting piles of evidence which includes growing exhortations of denial and requests for more power when the current powers are not fulfilling the promises made to get them. We look at the trade agreements and think corporations due to the ISDS parts. We look at the corruption of legislatures and again think corporations due to the directions the influences take. We look at the imperious actions of various law enforcement agencies and think Big Brother in action, but allowed by various ‘democratic’ processes that are corrupted, largely by corporations again. There are probably other big clues not included here.

So if there is a Star Chamber, who sits on it. Probably a few corporatist’s, which ones? Probably a few intelligence people, which ones? Probably a few political dynasties, which ones? It is not likely that it is anyone currently active in either a corporation or government. More likely those of ’emeritus’ status. There is a possibility that it includes ‘old’ money or power (what is the difference again?). It is also possible that it includes ‘new’ money or power. Maybe a mix of the two. Oh, and let us not forget the bureaucrats who sit a level or two down from the appointed positions who provide ‘institutional knowledge’ which is also know as ‘same deal, different day’ and provides continuity for some direction or other.

Looking at the progress of this ‘committee’ do we start with Eisenhower and his military/industrial/complex speech, or do we need to go further back? How about the Mason’s? There were many of those around when the country was founded. Or are the instigating ingredients of this cabal even further back? Does organized religion have its fingers in the pie? How about trade unions? Clans? While we are spouting outrageous theories, why not include the possibility of some aliens?

What we CAN know is that certain actions of government officials are not natural extensions of democratic processes. The return from here to a functioning republic where the representatives represent their constituents rather than their contributors, is going to be difficult at the very least. And THAT process will have to wade through the detritus spewed by people like Brennan and allowed by so called journalists like the 60 Minutes presenters.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


He lies to advance an agenda of fear.
He is not making us safer and how ANYONE can have confidence in someone who is willing to often and loudly lie to anyone willing to listen?

It is one thing to lie about something to protect opsec, it is another to lie about easily disproven facts and demand people accept the lie as reality.

David says:

Re: Re: Re:

Treason does not carry jail sentences. And it’s not like he’s singular. Basically, you’d face the same sort of choices as for the Nuremberg trial: just where do you draw the line in order to retain a working system consisting mostly of people following orders without thinking while still avoiding an immediate return of the danger?

I don’t see the U.S. returning to the principles of its Constitution without losing a war and getting forced externally. Without external interference, the U.S. does not apparently have the strength to cleanse itself of the government entities working to abolish it.

Whatever (profile) says:


What I always love is how “reported in the media, based on rumors and confidential sources” suddenly turns into cold hard facts.

It doesn’t mean that they are not true, but “facts” in these cases are a bit slippery. I doubt that the CIA (or any other agency) is going to spill all the beans on any of this. The truth and the facts are perhaps as muddied and obtuse as the reasons why these attacks occur in the first place.

Basing arguments (for or again) encryption based on what the media is reporting is probably not the best idea.

Tom Mink (profile) says:

Admission of defeat

The intelligence community wants backdoors to encryption not to gather more information but to narrow down the enormous feed they are already taking in. They’re essentially admitting defeat in sorting through the haystack and assuming that the smaller amount of encrypted communication would be more manageable and still contain actionable intelligence.

That’s their wish- reduce the workload. Kind of petty really considering the widespread harm that enacting even the half-assed proposals currently on the table.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Admission of defeat

They’re essentially admitting defeat in sorting through the haystack and assuming that the smaller amount of encrypted communication would be more manageable and still contain actionable intelligence.

Uh… no. They want to make the haystack bigger. There’s no way they’re going to give up the cleartext collection they’re doing now, they want to add encrypted communication to it.

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