Did Edward Snowden’s revelations on NSA surveillance compromise the ability of intelligence agencies to monitor terrorist groups? Contrary to lurid claims made by U.S. officials, a new independent analysis of the subject says no. As reported by NBC:
“.…Flashpoint Global Partners, a private security firm, examined the frequency of releases and updates of encryption software by jihadi groups….. It found no correlation in either measure to Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s surveillance techniques, which became public beginning June 5, 2013.”
The report itself goes on to make the point that, “Well prior to Edward Snowden, online jihadists were already aware that law enforcement and intelligence agencies were attempting to monitor them.” This point would seem obvious in light of the fact that terrorist groups have been employing tactics to evade digital surveillance for years. Indeed, such concerns about their use of sophisticated encryption technology predate even 9/11. Contrary to claims that such groups have fundamentally altered their practices due to information gleaned from these revelations, the report concludes. “The underlying public encryption methods employed by online jihadists do not appear to have significantly changed since the emergence of Edward Snowden.”
These findings are notable both for empirical rigor through which they ascertained, as well as their contradiction of apparently baseless statements made by high-ranking U.S. officials regarding the impact of the leaks on U.S. national security. This is particularly important as it pertains to the ongoing public debate over the alleged threat of ISIS. In making his case that the danger from ISIS to the United States is “imminent”, Marco Rubio recently claimed that the group has: “…learned a lot about our intelligence-gathering capabilities through a series of disclosures and other sorts of things, and they have become increasingly capable of evading detection.”
Earlier this month former NSA head Michael Hayden also stated, “The changed communications practices and patterns of terrorist groups following the Snowden revelations have impacted our ability to track and monitor these groups”, while Matthew Olsen of the National Counterterrorism Centre would add “Following the disclosure of the stolen NSA documents, terrorists are changing how they communicate to avoid surveillance.”
Olsen went on to say that terrorist groups are, “….moving to more secure communications platforms, using encryption and avoiding electronic communications altogether.” In fact, it’s well known that terrorist groups have employed such tactics as a means to protect their data and communications for years. Correspondingly, it’s difficult to imagine how statements suggesting that such tactics are new developments prompted by Snowden could be made in good faith.
Contrary to official statements and farcical attempts to launder information through pliant media outlets, no substantive case has ever been made that the Snowden revelations have harmed the ability of intelligence agencies to monitor terrorist organizations. The source of this most recent study is notable as it comes from a private security firm whose analysts actually have in past been accused of threat inflation; and yet who nevertheless conclude that the danger from extremist groups has not been materially impacted by the Snowden leaks.
Snowden’s critics have accused his actions of contributing from everything from the rise of ISIS to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. Seemingly every possible failure of the U.S. intelligence community has been attributed back to his disclosures, yet upon further analysis these allegations have always been revealed to be unfounded. Now, in an attempt to both build consensus for a new conflict in Iraq and distract from the ongoing erosion of domestic civil liberties, it is again being insinuated that his revelations have aided terrorists and made the United States less secure.
This most recent study is the most comprehensive repudiation of these charges to date. Contrary to lurid claims to the contrary, the facts demonstrate that terrorist organizations have not benefited from the NSA revelations, nor have they substantially altered their behavior in response to them. Despite this, don’t expect to hear any change in the rhetoric of those who have been baselessly insisting otherwise.