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


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. 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.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.