US Defense Official Says Intelligence Agencies Need To 'Grow Up' And Stop Blaming Snowden For Their ISIS-Tracking Problems

from the who-would-have-suspected-cellphones-of-being-gov't-snitches? dept

The NSA's apologists have long claimed that Snowden's leaks have given America's many terrorist enemies the upper hand by informing them of super-secret means and methods.

Others have argued a bit more rationally that, if anything, Snowden's leaks have only confirmed what was widely suspected -- that the NSA (and its Five Eyes allies) had access to a vast amount of data and communications. It may have filled in a few missing details and warned them away from buying American hardware and software, but by and large, didn't result in completely overhauled communications systems.

An article for the Daily Beast written by Shane Harris and Noah Shachtman adds a few more voices to this discussion. It opens with intelligence officials discussing the difficulty they're having keeping tabs on ISIS.
In addition to encryption that American officials say has proven very difficult to crack, ISIS is also using a commercially available service that permanently deletes messages sent via the Internet, making them nearly impossible to intercept, according to an individual who was briefed on the issue Thursday.
More details are offered, including the unsurprising fact that the terrorist group considers cellphones to be inherently untrustworthy.
[I]SIS is practicing tight controls on their communications, especially at the top of the organization.

“These guys have a level of discipline. They will enforce through the ranks not using cellphones,” said the individual who was briefed on ISIS counter-surveillance techniques. The group has also used couriers to convey some messages in order to avoid digital communications altogether.
But those more directly involved with targeting and fighting ISIS note that none of this is unusual.
“Past that first day or two of easy targets, ISIS predictably dispersed into the civilian population. They quit using high-power radios, satellite and cellphones, starting moving to a dispersed command and control model,” [analyst Christopher] Harmer said.
Those expressing panic over the terrorists going dark routinely fail to note the upside -- that severing more predictable lines of communication to avoid surveillance takes its toll on internal coordination. Time-sensitive operations may be damaged by the shift to a much slower "sneakernet" and the further scattering of key members by US attacks further compromises efficiency.

But the narrative that lays the difficulty of tracking ISIS at Snowden's feet is, at the very least, misguided.
“It’s wrong to say because of Snowden our fight with ISIS is harder,” said one U.S. defense official with extensive experience battling al Qaeda and other militant groups. For more than a decade, intelligence agencies have been using electronic surveillance to locate terrorists, a fact that obviously hasn’t eluded ISIS, he said. “I’m not in any way defending Snowden.But I think our intel agencies need to grow up.
Other officials note that one of the only changes they've observed has nothing to do with encryption or otherwise securing communications. This was already happening. What has vanished, however, is chatter on public channels.
“Post-Snowden, they took a lot of the opsec [operational security] discussions off of the public forums,” said Christopher Ahlberg, the CEO of Recorded Future, a data analysis firm backed by the investment arm of the U.S. intelligence community, among others. Those public forums included websites and chat rooms where ISIS members exchanged ideas for strategy and shared tactics.
Better opsec should be expected from any organization the longer it's in existence. This shift away from public channels would likely have happened even without Snowden's leaks. If anything, the leaks sped up this process. But they can hardly be considered solely -- or even largely -- responsible for terrorists' surveillance-dodging techniques.

Filed Under: blame, defense department, ed snowden, intelligence, isis, surveillance


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Nov 2014 @ 8:15am

    Free clue for the intelligence community

    ISIS is over there --->

    Stop spending your budget, resources, and personnel spying inside the United States and start spending it over there. It'll yield better results.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Nov 2014 @ 10:04am

      Re: Free clue for the intelligence community

      There's an old Sufu story:
      A man noticed Nasrudin intently inspecting the ground outside his door.

      “Mulla,” he said, “what are you looking for?”

      “I’m looking for a ring I dropped,” Nasrudin replied.

      “Oh,” the man replied as he also began searching. “Well where exactly were you standing when you dropped it?”

      “In my bedroom,” Nasrudin replied, “not more than a foot in front of my bed.”

      “Your bedroom?!“ the man asked. “Then why are you searching for it out here near your doorway.

      “Because,” Nasrudin explained, “there is much more light out here.”
      The moral? It's easier - safer - to hunt for imaginary tigers in a flock of geese than it is to hunt real tigers in a jungle. And you can still brag you're hunting tigers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 18 Nov 2014 @ 12:57pm

        Re: Re: Free clue for the intelligence community

        You kidding, geese are freakin' crazy, I'd take the tigers any day.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Nov 2014 @ 8:16am

    "The group has also used couriers to convey some messages in order to avoid digital communications altogether."

    Terrorists use face to face communications. Henceforth, NSA will be recording all face to face communications of all Americans.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 18 Nov 2014 @ 8:21am

    Being online or offline the only thing that is really effective against terrorism is constant investigative techniques. Harvesting tons of metadata and communications from everybody does not improve it. Instead, much more workforce will need to be diverted towards separating civilian communications from what really matters. Now, knowing they are off the net can we start rolling back the surveillance apparatus and start recovering respect for the Constitution?

    It seems plain old investigative effort is much more guaranteed to yield results.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 18 Nov 2014 @ 8:54am

      Re:

      That might be true for this group but there are so so many more out there. Probably even some you have never heard of and who is to say they wont be caught by the surveillance apparatus.

      All the NSA really needs is to find/stop one person, although if they found 10 it'd look better, who tried to blow something up and the people will get behind them again.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 18 Nov 2014 @ 9:11am

        Re: Re:

        > All the NSA really needs is to find/stop one person

        So what you're saying is they only need a little help from the FBI to give a little "help" to someone else and then claim to be the responsible party in catching them?

        The only thing I wonder about is what we'll call it afterwards, "constructive parallelism"?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 18 Nov 2014 @ 9:42am

        Re: Re:

        but there are so so many more out there.

        Most of them are tiny little groups devoid of any real impact. Even these high profile groups enjoy less and less support within the goddamn Muslims. So where's the need to harvest all again?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Michael, 18 Nov 2014 @ 9:48am

      Re:

      Being online or offline the only thing that is really effective against terrorism is constant investigative techniques.

      I'm not sure that has been very effective either. In fact, I think the only thing we have evidence of being effective is some basic vigilance by the general population and not doing stupid, reactionary things to try to combat terrorism.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Nov 2014 @ 9:24am

    Less Agents sitting in front of computer monitors more in the field overseas.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Nov 2014 @ 9:33am

    completely agree, but it's so much harder to blame yourself or admit self-failure, isn't it!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Nov 2014 @ 9:46am

    Whether the public or government likes these terrorists or not they have to credit them with being human. That means they have the ability to reason, tackle problems, and come up with solutions till something works.

    Remember targeting cell phone chips with drone missiles? Snowden wasn't around then, he came later. Yet they figured it out and started mixing up the chips and passing them out. Suddenly the US has mud on it's face cause it hit some civilians at a wedding party and another at a funeral. Neither of which were actually terrorists.

    It demonstrates that the US has crowed through leaked approved messages to media that they found it on the internet or dragneted the phone communications. So with millions of people in a religion supporting them how long you think it is going to take for them to find an answer once they have figured out where the problem is? Or even where the problem is.

    This is media cannon fodder to blame Snowden. They didn't need Snowden to figure out to begin with. A Hellfire missile in their midst is a pretty big sign post.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Trevor, 18 Nov 2014 @ 9:47am

    Um

    In addition to encryption that American officials say has proven very difficult to crack, ISIS is also using a commercially available service that permanently deletes messages sent via the Internet, making them nearly impossible to intercept, according to an individual who was briefed on the issue Thursday.

    Um, Snapchat isn't THAT secure guys...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    AnonymouseCoward, 18 Nov 2014 @ 10:49am

    The same effect we see the surveillance having on the ISIS ability to communicate and coordinate effectively, timely and at lower cost/friction is the same cost that will be borne by a civilian population not desiring the exertion of government authority and power into their daily lives.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    peter, 18 Nov 2014 @ 12:54pm

    Growing up

    Time for the NSA to put on its big-boy pants

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Nov 2014 @ 9:28am

    Those expressing panic over the terrorists going dark routinely fail to note the upside -- that severing more predictable lines of communication to avoid surveillance takes its toll on internal coordination. Time-sensitive operations may be damaged by the shift to a much slower "sneakernet" and the further scattering of key members by US attacks further compromises efficiency.


    This is what I like to call Assange's Paradox. Sharing information in the open (at least for an organization like ISIS) has obvious problems but so does secrecy because of the toll this secrecy tax takes on co-ordination.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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