Real-Life Repercussions Of Snowden Leaks: Al Qaeda Changing Tactics, Making Plot Detection Harder

Intelligence is now obligated to change tactics as al-Qaeda and others change tactics based on leaked info. Might something get missed in the confusion?

Intelligence is now obligated to change tactics as al-Qaeda and others change tactics based on leaked info. Might something get missed in the confusion?

In the continuing, swirling debate of “is he or isn’t he?” – traitor, hero, patsy, pawn – the real-life ramifications of Edward Snowden’s leak of classified information to the media, as well as to sources in China (with whom the U.S. has what could certainly be called a complicated relationship), are not only on the table to be discussed, but felt. And the ripples are starting to make their way to shore.

According to the Associated Press, intelligence agencies are in overdrive attempting to salvage surveillance efforts seriously compromised by the Snowden dump:

It’s an electronic game of cat-and-mouse that could have deadly consequences if a plot is missed or a terrorist operative manages to drop out of sight.

Two U.S. intelligence officials say members of virtually every terrorist group, including core al-Qaida members, are attempting to change how they communicate, based on what they are reading in the media, to hide from U.S. surveillance. It is the first time intelligence officials have described which groups are reacting to the leaks. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak about the intelligence matters publicly. […]

The changing terrorist behavior is part of the fallout of the release of dozens of top-secret documents to the news media by Snowden, 30, a former systems analyst on contract to the NSA.

The Office of the Director for National Intelligence and the NSA declined to comment on the fallout, but the NSA’s director, Gen. Keith Alexander, told lawmakers that the leaks have caused “irreversible and significant damage to this nation.”

“I believe it will hurt us and our allies,” Alexander said.

Leaders on all sides of the political aisle have been as mixed in their assessment of Snowden and his actions as Americans at large. Libertarians have hailed him as a freedom fighter. Republicans and Democrats have run the gamut in terms of their reactions, from anger at the “overreach” of the NSA, to horror at the “criminal” and potentially damaging actions of a rogue operative. Some have addressed the very specific issue of how terrorist groups and others are reacting to the leaked information.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said there are “changes we can already see being made by the folks who wish to do us harm, and our allies harm.”

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said Tuesday that Snowden “has basically alerted people who are enemies of this country … (like) al-Qaeda, about what techniques we have been using to monitor their activities and foil plots, and compromised those efforts, and it’s very conceivable that people will die as a result.”

The thought of which should chill to the bone any “information freedom fighters” who dismiss the very real potential for damage created by the broad leaks (with more said to come) made here and abroad.

But, of course, in this climate of cultural suspicion and “everything is a conspiracy,” any alarm uttered by NSA officials or politicians is too often put in the pool of “dubious,” rather than considered with cold-water clarity. AP reports that privacy activists are “skeptical” of such claims, making the point that if the average citizen makes the assumption that their communications are being monitored, why wouldn’t terrorists, even before Snowden’s actions?

“I assume my communication is being monitored,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch. She said that’s why her group joined a lawsuit against the Director of National Intelligence to find out if its communications were being monitored. The case was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court last fall. “I would be shocked if terrorists didn’t also assume that and take steps to protect against it,” she said.

“The government is telling us, `This has caused tremendous harm.’ But also saying, `Trust us we have all the information. The US government has to do a lot more than just say it,” Prasow said.

But how is the government supposed to “do more than just say it” when the information, the programs, the terrorists groups involved, the methods of monitoring, etc., are all supposed to be SECRET? This is spy stuff we’re talking about; intelligence, espionage; the clandestine, under the radar stuff designed to detect plots-in-the-making and preempt them. Remember how enraged we were when hints of the 9/11 plot appeared to have been ignored by the Bush administration? Clearly we WANT that kind of intelligence; we need that kind of canary-in-the-coal-mine exploration to help keep us safe, and, up till now, we’ve understood the canary dies if something noxious is found in that mine shaft; it’s the price of preemption.

In this case, the canary might be seen as the sacrifice of some of our personal privacy; a chunk of which was handed over when the Patriot Act was implemented. But if such sacrifice could preempt another 9/11, wouldn’t we find some satisfaction in the arrangement? That’s the bargain the American people, if begrudgingly in many cases, have made with our government, our intelligence community, our… protectors. And that kind of preemptive intelligence is only found by secret, clandestine “spying,” the kind Edward Snowden’s leaks have now made public to… everyone. Including the groups on the other end of the telescope.

It does appear, however, that not all of those in the surveillance crosshairs plan to change their activities:

Two foreign diplomats reached this week who use U.S. email systems that the NSA monitors overseas say they plan no changes, because both diplomats said they already assumed the U.S. was able to read that type of correspondence. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss their methods of communication publicly. [Source]

But others?

“After the leak, jihadists posted Arabic news articles about it … and recommended fellow jihadists to be very cautious, not to give their real phone number and other such information when registering for a website,” said Adam Raisman of the SITE Intelligence Group, a private analysis firm. They also gave out specific advice, recommending jihadists use privacy-protecting email systems to hide their computer’s IP address, and to use encrypted links to access jihadi forums, Raisman said.

Other analysts predicted a two-track evolution away from the now-exposed methods of communication: A terrorist who was using Skype to plan an attack might stop using that immediately so as not to expose the imminent operation, said Ben Venzke of the private analysis firm IntelCenter.

But if the jihadi group uses a now-exposed system like YouTube to disseminate information and recruit more followers, they’ll make a gradual switch to something else that wasn’t revealed by Snowden’s leaks – moving slowly in part because they’ll be trying to determine whether new systems they are considering aren’t also compromised, and they’ll have to reach their followers and signal the change. That will take time.

What will also take time are the U.S. intelligence community’s measures to readjust, recalibrate and redesign programs that had been in place, ones that will no longer be effective with groups who are now changing tactics. The question remains: will anything of importance get missed in all the confusion?

Hopefully not, but as some cheer Mr. Snowden as a hero, and demonize the government and the programs he impacted by his actions, it might be wise to look beyond the pumped fists and waving flags to consider the bigger picture. If, indeed, his actions endanger the safety of anyone in the intelligence arena, American citizens in their homes or offices, or any human being who might find themselves in the wrong place and time should a terrorist attack occur that might have been preempted but wasn’t, the real-life repercussions will go beyond “whistleblowing” and “liberties,” right to matters of life and death. Easier or harder to draw lines in the sand then? We’ll all have to decide.