Once Again, The Brussels Attacks Were An Intelligence Community Failure, Not An 'Encryption' Problem

from the yet-again dept

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After the Paris attacks late last year, we noted that it was clear that they were evidence of an intelligence community failure, rather than an “encryption” problem — which kind of explained why the intelligence community quickly tried to blame encryption. But, as we noted, most of the attackers were already known to the intelligence community and law enforcement — and there’s still little evidence that they used any encryption.

It’s looking like the Brussels attacks are showing the same pattern. First, there were reports that Belgian law enforcement was well aware of the attackers and their connections.

In Brussels, one of two brothers who took part in Tuesday?s attacks on Zaventem airport and a subway train, which killed 31 people and injured hundreds more, had already been suspected of helping the Paris attackers, the federal prosecutors? office said.

And another report noted that one of the brothers had been deported from Turkey a few months ago, and that Turkish officials had warned Belgium about his ties to terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, a more recent report says that US intelligence agencies were even more aware of the attackers:

U.S. security agencies had the names of the two suicide bombers who attacked Brussels airport in their databases as potential terror threats.

NBC News quoted U.S. officials who said that Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui were known to U.S. counterterrorism authorities before Tuesday morning, when the pair and a third man detonated theor bombs at the airport and a train station.

So, once again, we see a situation where these guys were known (or should have been known) to law enforcement and intelligence, but they were still able to carry out their attack. And, yet, rather than blaming intelligence failures, politicians are blaming encryption again.

And, of course, the intelligence community will do what it always does: rather than admit it failed here, it will blame encryption or blame limits on surveillance and demand more powers. As we’ve noted in the past, no matter what the result, the intelligence community will always insist that more surveillance is the answer. If the surveillance works, to them it’s evidence that they need more of it to do an even better job. If the surveillance fails (as in this case), then it’s evidence that they need more surveillance to avoid such misses in the future. Anything to deflect from the fact that they had a ton of intelligence here, and still failed at stopping the attack.

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Comments on “Once Again, The Brussels Attacks Were An Intelligence Community Failure, Not An 'Encryption' Problem”

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Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Re: Failure?

We need to consider that in a free society there are limits to what can be “stopped”.


…Though I can never tell if years of governments promising a magic “stop” button has caused it, or whether a large chunk of the population believing there is a magic “stop” button leads governments to promise one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Failure?

This is a great point, and also yet another dig at the intelligence apparatus.

The real truth is that probably at least some of these attacks can’t be stopped no matter what, because there will always bee TOO MANY FALSE POSITIVES as well, just like Schneier predicted.


Going from that, more surveillance will likely only make things worse, as the intelligence agencies will be flooded with more useless data and more false positives.

beltorak (profile) says:

Re: Failure?

You are implying that the two are somehow exclusive, as if setting an impossible goal somehow means that not achieving it is not a failure.

It’s both. The reason it’s a failure is because it’s impossible. Unfortunately, other than simple statistics, this is not a mathematical conundrum; the only way we know it’s impossible is by looking at all the results of trying to achieve it. Eventually, we can hope, everyone will conclude that it is indeed impossible; until then all we can do is point out the failures and make reasoned arguments that the only outcome of the current course of actions is failure.

That One Guy (profile) says:

When all you have is a wicked desire to peek into the personal lives of those around you...

If they admitted that even with all the data they had they still failed to stop the attack people might start wondering just why they need all that data and power in the first place, and we can’t have that now can we?. As such the spy agencies will never admit that they failed, they will always claim that they ‘didn’t have enough data’ or the ‘data was encrypted’, casting the blame anywhere but where it rightly belongs, on them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: When all you have is a wicked desire to peek into the personal lives of those around you...

‘didn’t have enough data’

The problem is getting to the point where they are getting too much data. Even though other countries warned about the possible terrorists months earlier, my question is how many other people were they warned about.

Anonymous Coward says:

…U.S. security agencies had the names of the two suicide bombers who attacked Brussels airport in their databases as potential terror threats…

POTENTIAL – as in ‘innocent until proven guilty’ – or is there actual proof that they were bad guys before the bombings. If they were bad guys the failure is in the decision making process up to and including heads of states. Many intelligence agencies don’t like to get involved in killing bad folks because that interferes with their information gathering duties. If there’s any arresting, detaining, or killing to be done they’d rather such be done by police or military.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

This is a horrific game to them, find ways to expand the current programs at the expense of anything else.

The system must be protected and only needs a little more to be effective.

We can’t fire or charge cops who kill citizens for no real reason, we have to protect them. War on Cops.

We can’t fire or charge prosecutors who railroad innocents into jail, we have to protect the system. Isolated Incidents.

We can’t fire the idiots who claim that despite having everything they took (and then some) they were unable to stop an attack they knew about. Encryption Did It.

Of course we have media who are supposed to report when our leaders are boldly lying to us, but they just parrot the party line because they fear not getting the same access as the sycophants who report bald face lies.

While they are screaming encryption, was has no one had the balls to ask them how many people need to die before they feel bad for failing? How many corpses are spinning in their graves because their deaths have been turned into fodder to expand a system that could have saved them but is so poorly run they were acceptable losses.

We can not be 100% safe all of the time, but we are much less safe under these current programs. They ferret out drug dealers using terrorism laws. They spy on significant others. They put people they dislike on the secret lists to make their lives more difficult. They use their positions to steal from citizens and the system pretends it isn’t happening.

You magical protect us all if we just give up a little bit more pipe dream has a much larger bodycount than before you got these latest powers, when will we have the will to call out their bullshit and demand they do better with what they have. They knew who the people were, they knew something was coming and for not for sharing data from their precious programs the bodycount went up. We don’t need more surveillance, we need more accountability & repercussions when they fail this spectacularly so they are motivated to stop the plots they already knew about rather than worrying about some fantasy future super attack.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Knowing what we know, knowing when we know it, and knowing what to do with it.

They knew enough about them to put them on a list. We are all on some list, it’s the classification of those on any list that is suspect.

On a list, easy to find after the fact. Knowing enough about them to consider them an eminent threat is something else. To get that answer we would need to know who knew what, when did they know it, that it is in fact a bad thing, and according to whom. Not likely forthcoming.

So the question comes up, how much do we need to know about potential bad people to consider them an eminent threat? Does society (outside of a police state (of which more and more are on the brink)) allow such knowledge? Should we? When does such ‘knowledge’ pass from being actual knowledge into ‘projecting’ behavior, or pre-crime type thought police? What will it take to prove that we can actually do that with some extremely high percentage of absolute accuracy?

If anyone is going to be able to stop bad things from happening by knowing that they are about to happen we are going to need to know what is needed to know about them in advance, and then how to know that in advance, and that is something we don’t yet know.

The intelligence agencies would like us to think they already know, but their performance tells us that they really don’t. They also hope that by collecting enough information about everyone they will eventually be able to distill that into what they actually need to know. The problems is the failures to know and the rights trampled in-between now and them actually knowing.

The problem is also that in order to justify their current behavior they need to keep the populace terrorized…exactly what they accuse parts of the populace of doing just before they arrest them or even kill them extra-judicially. And that doesn’t seem quite right.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Knowing what we know, knowing when we know it, and knowing what to do with it.

find out enough info about when and where an attack is going to take place, then do nothing to stop the attack but make sure you can capitalize on the aftermath so you can pass more laws that give you greater power at the expense of everyone else.

The real terrorists are the ones in governmental power, not the fanatics carrying out the attacks.

Anonymous Coward says:

These security branches defy all logic and all methods to deal with failure.

In any other private job, failure continuously, means at the least no more doing it your way. Don’t even talk about being rewarded for that continual failure with more responsibility, more money, nor more people in on co-operating with your process.

Yet it is this same rule of thumb that the security branches want to use to claim they need more.

Capt ICE Enforcer says:

Email to government spy (security) agents.

A greatful nation thanks you for you numerous years of support. But we regret to inform you that you are all let go (FIRED). We understand that you are concerned, but research shows firing people late on Friday reduces the chance of arguements or potential conflicts by 3%. Which is a low percentage but still higher than your combined effectiveness over the past numerous decades. Research also shows that the money our citizens are saving will now be used for free Go carts and Jet ski for every person on the planet. Have you ever seen a person sad or angry while riding a go cart or jet ski? We haven’t either which means that everyone on the planet will be happy which results in your job being obsolete.

Thank you,
Capt ICE Enforcer
Upper management.

Capt ICE Enforcer says:

Individuals known

Of course the governments knew about the bad guys before they attacked. The governments consider everyone bad, even 4 year olds. This is why they want everything so they can say. Eureka I told you so. It is no different than them saying that Capt ICE Enforcer has the greatest selfie (package) on the planet.

Steve R. (profile) says:

Misplaced Blame

The other night, Oliver North was on TV concerning the iPhone/encryption issue. Essentially he stated that attempting to break the iPhone encryption was a misplaced effort. That greater emphasis needed to be placed on gathering “human” intelligence (spies) and less on “signal” intelligence (iPhone).

Fox News went on its usual tirade. In this case showing the video of the three the supposed terrorists. Fox News lamented that if these people were observed on video before the attack, they should have been caught before the attack. Fox News then (inappropriately) asserted that security was lax. Unbelievable.

One of the concerns, with mass surveillance, that Fox News overlooked; watching video of people milling around is incredibly boring. It would be very difficult for anyone to endlessly watch this and they would rapidly lose interest out of shear boredom. It is highly unfortunate, but surveillance footage is probably only useful after the fact.

Anonymous Coward says:

“…potential terror threats,” which means they weren’t actual terror threats until they committed actual acts of terror, by which time it was too late to do anything about them.

I do not mean to imply that I am defending these individuals. I am saying that, even though the attackers were known to governments, the governments were powerless to act until the attackers proved themselves.

Ironically, I learned this from Techdirt.

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