Friday, 8 May 2015

A gift to terrorists

The CIA’s former Deputy Director, Michael Morell has blamed Ed Snowden for the “rise of ISIS”.

We knew this and he’s not the only senior member of the intelligence community to say so.  But he’s being talked about a lot right now because he’s written a book.

Morell, who makes the claims in a new book, says the most damaging revelation was the existence of a spying program that collects foreigners' e-mails as they move through equipment in America.

He said the jihadists subsequently switched their messaging systems to more 'secure' platforms, encrypted them or 'avoided electronic communications altogether'.

I’m caught between three reactions:

  1. Doubting that Morrell knows whether terrorists really have changed their approaches or whether the causal link he suggests really exists.
  2. Wondering whether their supposed moving to more conventional means of information exchange is really such a bad thing for the intelligence services.
  3. Still feeling that mass surveillance seems too large a price to pay for unspecified benefits to anti-terrorism and that it’s the citizens of a nation who should make that decision, not the intelligence services acting in secret.

I don’t know enough to evaluate 1 and 2, but I’m fairly certain about 3.  I might be willing to give up some specified privacy in exchange for well-reasoned and well-described counter-measures against a tangible threat.  But I’m not prepared to give up – without being asked – any and all privacy in exchange for dubious, unspecified counter-measures against threats I’m not even sure exist.

“ISIS was one of those terrorist groups that learned from Snowden and it is clear that [Snowden’s] actions played a role in the rise of ISIS.”

I haven’t read the book yet, but I very much doubt that the situation is quite so clear as that.  There seem many reasons why ISIS has ‘risen’ and they’re mostly reasons of politics and opportunity.  ISIS isn’t a typical terrorist group, operating as a loosely-connected group of cells.  It’s a coherent and very visible organisation that isn’t even trying to hide.  Better access to its communications would doubtless help the CIA in combating ISIS, but that isn’t the CIA’s job.  It’s not trying to do that.  Better access might help the CIA counter terrorism (which is its job), but that has nothing to do with the rise of ISIS.

“At a time when the range of threats against the West has never been greater, with Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Al Qaeda in Pakistan, it is astonishing the focus has been more on the shortcomings of our intelligence agencies and not the fact Snowden has helped terror suspects drop off the radar.”

The ‘shortcomings’ being that they are secretly collecting every piece of information about us all that they possibly can, often illegally.  And here’s the thing: encrypting communications isn’t difficult. Assuming that communications are vulnerable to interception is where secretive organisations begin. It’s tradecraft.  And there are plenty of manuals available about how to do it, which are not manuals for terrorism but for reasonable expectation of privacy and are equally valid post-Snowden.

There’s some worrying rhetoric, too:

“[Snowden] has caused severe damage to our ability to fight extremism.”

Telling, isn’t it? We’re not fighting ‘extremism’.  Many people hold ‘extreme’ views.  But many extremists aren’t dangerous and many dangerous people aren’t extremists.  We’re fighting people who threaten us and the holding of extreme views is not in itself a threat.  It’s the kind of throwaway comment that worries me.

MI5 director general Andrew Parker has called the traitor's actions a 'gift to terrorists'.

At least the Daily Mail isn’t afraid to say where it stands.  I wonder what the DM thinks Snowden is a traitor to, though.

Morell pointedly criticizes the National Security Agency, saying it was conducting highly sensitive surveillance of allied leaders without fully considering the appropriateness of its operations.

The NSA, he said, had 'largely been collecting information because it could, not necessarily in all cases because it should.'

And yet he bemoans the fact that this behaviour was exposed. But that kind of contradiction is bread and butter to Morell.  He simultaneously praises and decries torture, for example.

While Morell says he is personally troubled by the harshest technique the CIA used on detainees, water boarding, he makes a case that agency leaders had no choice but to use what many consider torture in the years after the 9/11 attacks.

I doubt he was as uncomfortable as the victims.

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