In the weeks following NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s first disclosures, it was not long before anonymous United States officials were alleging Snowden had released information that was leading terrorists being tracked by the US to change their tactics, techniques or procedures. Yet, to date, there have been no examples provided to substantiate this allegation.
Once more, in the past week, Rep. Mike Rogers, the chair of the House Select Committee on Intelligence (HSCI), and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, a ranking member of HSCI, made public statements picked up by media that there was a classified Pentagon report on Snowden’s disclosures that found he had helped the terrorists.
Rogers said, “This report confirms my greatest fears — Snowden’s real acts of betrayal place America’s military men and women at greater risk. Snowden’s actions are likely to have lethal consequences for our troops in the field.” And both congressmen declared, “Snowden’s disclosures have already tipped off our adversaries to the sources and methods of our defense, and hurt U.S. allies helping us with counter terrorism, cyber crime, human and narcotics trafficking, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” with no specifics whatsoever.
Some journalists approached this with appropriate skepticism. For example, Shane Harris of Foreign Policy highlighted how this information was being disclosed specifically to challenge the idea that Snowden is a whistleblower. President Barack Obama’s administration had even approved the release of this information to discredit Snowden.
Now, in a recent National Public Radio interview, retiring NSA deputy director John Inglis spoke to host Steve Inskeep. What he said provides even more reason to believe that these statements are nothing more than pure propaganda and the NSA has no proof that terrorists have actually changed tactics because of Snowden.
When first addressing damage, Inglis gave what sounded like the standard explanation the public has been fed routinely:
…[W]e can say with great confidence that terrorists and rogue nations have been paying attention and have begun to take the necessary steps to invalidate the means and methods by which we would get intelligence on them. But it also has harmed relationships between the executive branch and other components of the government…
But even that, if one parses the language, could be understood as NSA officials are confident terrorists are keeping watch and will soon change their means and methods. That already invalidates statements made in the past six or seven months to undermine Snowden.
Furthermore, Inglis offered a sober reflection on whether the NSA can actually state the terrorists are changing tactics in the aftermath of the disclosures:
INSKEEP: You referred to terrorists or others taking actions to invalidate your ability to surveil them. I’d like to know what that means in practice. Because when I think about the way that people have been known to respond to revelations like this, they actually end up having to deny themselves the use of the entire global telecommunications network. I think of Osama bin Laden, who ends up hiding in a house and can only work with messengers. That’s actually a significant disadvantage. Does it really damage them that much to know that someone is out there attempting to monitor them? Does it really damage you that much to know that someone’s out there?
INGLIS: Well, at the base of your question I think you’re right. They must know that we would have an interest in their activities, and that they communicate about those activities. We must then, you know, use that as an opportunity to better understand them. But they don’t know the precise means and methods that we might employ. It might be surprising to someone that a communication that makes its way from, say, some ungoverned space in the north of southwest Asia to a place like Yemen sometimes transits through the United States of America. It might be then be available for review by a foreign intelligence organization like the National Security Agency. We have reminded people of that time and time again across the summer. And within the Internet there are enormous number of choices that you might avail yourself of. If you don’t want to use Service A, you can use Service B or Service C.
While admitting the terrorist groups being spied upon must know the US is targeting them with surveillance—which has not always happened when making these kind of claims, Inglis then basically said Snowden gives terrorists the ability to know what specific services to use and not use for communications.
The exchange continued:
INSKEEP: You have specific instances in which you…
INGLIS: We do.
INSKEEP: …believe that trails that you were following disappeared.
INGLIS: We do, we do. Now it’s too soon to say that some of that isn’t serendipity. It’s the kind of natural roil that takes place in terms of the turnover of technology. Something that we were able to do might be lost because it was simply a technology transformation. And they naturally move to something else, or something that we had as a capability has slipped away from us based upon the natural roil that is technology and operational practice. But they’re adding up in ways that are too numerous and too, I think, related to the disclosures to be accidental. And so, therefore, we’ve got a hard job ahead of us to sustain the kind of access that we have against those bona fide foreign intelligent targets that the nation must know something about. [emphasis added]
Inglis thinks the number of moves to other technologies and operational practices are too numerous to be natural and irresponsive to what Snowden revealed. However, most significantly, he admits that there is a “natural roil that takes place in terms of the turnover of technology.” That terrorists might just make a switch for whatever reason and it is basically serendipitous that NSA can no longer track them.
It actually is consistent with what Rogers and Ruppersberger said; that terrorists were “tipped off.” The statements reflect an understanding that the information is out there, but there is no proof or knowledge of whether the terrorists have actually taken advantage of the information. So, that means statements on damage based highly on agency predictions that have not come to be yet.
As Marcy Wheeler pointed out, there are multiple examples of leaks which Inglis, which he failed to acknowledge when claiming Snowden’s disclosures alerted terrorists to NSA spying capabilities. Drone strikes are a key one. If a fellow member of a militant group is targeted and killed, the group must suspect there is something they did to tip off the US and then probably will adjust accordingly.
Furthermore, when the US military was prosecuting Chelsea Manning for disclosing information to WikiLeaks, it was asserted in court that Osama bin Laden had been sent copies of US State Embassy cables and military incident reports and somehow al Qaeda had benefited because of this communication. Manning was accused of “aiding the enemy” (a charge which she was found not guilty).
Bin Laden never requested the information immediately when it was published. According to Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, bin Laden was only interested in reading what WikiLeaks had published when he heard US government officials making claims that the information could be helpful to terrorists. Then he thought he had to get his hands on some of these documents being talked about by US officials.
So, keep that in mind: to the extent that government officials hype or promote the fear that this information can help terrorists, it is more likely that some terrorist leader will actually have someone consult the released information for details that could be useful in fighting the United States.