Worldwide attention on disclosures of once-secret U.S. surveillance programs may hinder efforts to track terrorist communications even though sophisticated terror groups almost certainly suspected the eavesdropping.
The exposure of Internet and telephone monitoring is “more of a reminder than a revelation” to terrorists, said Thomas Fingar, former deputy director of national intelligence. Still, he said in an interview, “Bad guys, like other human beings, get lazy, lapse, do what’s convenient, unless they’re reminded. This episode is a reminder.”
While Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has called published reports of U.S. surveillance a “playbook” for terrorists in avoiding detection, it’s difficult to assess the extent of damage to counterterrorism efforts. The potential impact involves amorphous predictions about how the leaks will alter the behavior of would-be plotters, friendly intelligence agencies and technology companies, according to former U.S. intelligence officials.
Clapper said in an interview with NBC News that the disclosures about telephone and Internet data collection by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former security contractor and CIA technical analyst, will do “huge, grave damage” to “our intelligence capabilities.”
Fingar, now a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, said news coverage of former President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program and political debate as intelligence surveillance laws were reauthorized in recent years should have alerted terrorist networks and foreign spy services that the U.S. was engaging in this kind of monitoring.
Still, Snowden’s hand-off of classified material to the Washington Post and U.K.-based Guardian newspapers may motivate terrorists to shift more time and resources to concealing their communications, though that involves a trade-off of speed and efficiency. While al-Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden used human couriers to evade detection by electronic eavesdropping, communication through intermediaries, even trusted ones, “can be slow and clumsy,” said Paul Pillar, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s counterterrorism center.
“It’s a mistake to assume that every communication of al-Qaeda or anyone else is done solely on the basis of maximum security,” he added.
Allied governments also may hesitate in sharing sensitive information if the leak generates broader concern about U.S. ability to keep secrets within an intelligence community that involves a multitude of private contractors, including Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., where Snowden had worked for the past three months. McLean, Virginia-based Booz Allen fired Snowden on June 10, the day after he revealed his role.
The disclosures Snowden has made so far may not have much impact on the trust allied intelligence agencies place in the U.S., Fingar said. “What’s there so far, I don’t think would cause people to overreact.”
Still, the latest disclosures of classified information came as another self-described whistle-blower, Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, 25, is on trial for providing a trove of classified State Department documents to the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks website.
“Any time you have a leak, anybody who is a cooperator or potential cooperator with your own service is going to think twice about cooperation,” Pillar said. “Leaks have hurt cooperation with a variety of foreign counterparts in the past.”
A cooling of intelligence sharing can be subtle and still have consequences, Pillar said. “It’s not an on-off switch,” he said. “It’s a question of how much, how often, how fast things are shared. It’s a matter of degree.”
Technology companies also could become more resistant to sharing data with U.S. intelligence services if they lose customers or face sanctions from European authorities raising concerns about surveillance on privacy grounds.
“It’s a major public relations problem clearly for the companies that have been named in doing their duty and cooperating with the government on this,” Pillar said. “That cannot help the trust and confidence of the business community in the future and certainly in these companies in particular.”
Citing classified documents, the Washington Post and Guardian reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency had accessed the central servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs.
Microsoft Corp., Yahoo! Inc., Google Inc., Facebook Inc., and Apple Inc. are among the companies involved, the newspapers reported. They have issued statements either denying that they had granted the government direct access to their servers or saying they were unaware of the program.
Google and Facebook yesterday asked the Justice Department for more leeway to disclose information about national-security requests for data, seeking to reassure users that the Web companies don’t give authorities unfettered access.
The operator of the world’s most popular Internet search engine sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, Google said in a blog post showing the letter. The Mountain View, California-based company asked for the ability to report aggregate numbers of national-security requests.
“We would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond,” Ted Ullyot, general counsel of Menlo Park, California-based Facebook, wrote in an e-mailed statement.
Snowden fled to Hong Kong before revealing his role in the newspaper reports of surveillance. General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee in a briefing that he didn’t know Snowden’s whereabouts, said Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, the panel’s top Republican.
Chambliss said in an interview that he expects Snowden to release more classified data.
“Apparently he’s got a thumb drive,” Chambliss said, while its contents are unknown. “He’s already exposed part of it and I guess he’s going to expose the rest of it.”
Federal prosecutors have started preparing criminal charges against Snowden, which they may try to finish quickly in order to start talks about extradition, according to U.S. officials. The FBI is conducting a broad investigation, according to the officials, including interviews with family, examination of his communications and whether he had any assistance with his efforts to obtain the leaked material.