And Now It's Time for the Ritual Blaming of Edward Snowden for Terrorism

Here's why CIA Chief John Brennan is full of crap.


Music selection: "Your Fault" from "Into the Woods."
Credit: Abode of Chaos / photo on flickr

CIA Director John Brennan clearly wants Americans (and the rest of the world) to believe that because Edward Snowden revealed that the United States was collecting massive amounts of data about its own citizens, the reforms that we have demanded have somehow, in some fashion, contributed to Friday's terrorist attack in Paris. Via Politico:

"In the past several years, because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of handwringing over the government's role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists, there have been some policy and legal and other actions that are taken that make our ability collectively, internationally to find these terrorists much more challenging," [Brennan] said. "I do hope that this is going to be a wake-up call particularly in areas of Europe where I think there has been a misrepresentation of what the intelligence security services are doing by some quarters that are designed to undercut those capabilities."

So, two details to point out on this completely predictable response from Brennan:

1. The reforms that reduce the federal government's surveillance authority only apply to Americans within the United States. That is it. There is absolutely nothing in the USA Freedom Act passed earlier in the year that would have hampered the CIA or National Security Agency (NSA) from attempting to track any of these terrorists. (Also, it hasn't even been implemented yet.)

2. In July, France decided to expand its government's surveillance authority in its own version of a Patriot ACT. While it doesn't permit bulk metadata collection, it does create a new body to provide secret approvals for surveillance without requiring warrants.

Then there's also the argument that terrorists are shifting platforms and using tougher encryption because Snowden revealed where surveillance was happening. London Mayor Boris Johnson wrote in the wake of the Paris attack that Snowden's whistle-blowing has "taught some of the nastiest people how avoid being caught."

That claim ignores the oft-repeated (but not to be dismissed) realization that the mass metadata collection the NSA engaged in failed to stop a single terrorist plot. It's not the tools that are the problem, nor is the problem the lack of surveillance authority. Rather, whenever we delve closely into the question "How did they get away with this?" what we often find is a failure of these authorities to adequately communicate with each other. The right information didn't get into the right hands.

Will that be the case here? Well, the alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks was not some unknown, but rather a guy by the name of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, an established terrorist at large who has actually already been sentenced to prison (in absentia) in Belgium for recruiting terrorists. He was even given a glowing profile in the Islamic State's Dabiq magazine (pdf). He was most assuredly on every foreign intelligence agency's radar and whatever intelligence failures regarding his plotting cannot be pinned on the ending of mass metadata surveillance of Americans, for heaven's sake.

In the event the mass surveillance argument doesn't work, authorities then turn to blaming encryption. An official in Belgium says terrorists are coordinating their attacks via conversations on Playstation 4, which is difficult for them to monitor. There's a push from government officials in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere to try to force communication tools, however they manifest, to have encryption "backdoors" so that government can access them at any time.

This is a terrible idea entirely because of the massive potential for abuse. A tool a government official can use to force access into data can be used by anybody else who figures it out. Encryption doesn't just decrease individual privacy; it decreases security, opening us all up to greater potential for identity theft and other terrible consequences by bad actors. And as Jacob Sullum has previously noted, some of those bad actors may themselves be government officials. They don't even need to be officials looking to snoop and punish people for their opinions. Keep in mind all those cases of identity theft tied back to DMV employees or IRS workers.

Glenn Greenwald, a top Snowden defender, obviously, given Greenwald's role in reporting Snowden's leaks, responded in his fashion about how blaming terrorism on Snowden and encryption is simply absurd:

One key premise here seems to be that prior to the Snowden reporting, The Terrorists helpfully and stupidly used telephones and unencrypted emails to plot, so Western governments were able to track their plotting and disrupt at least large-scale attacks. That would come as a massive surprise to the victims of the attacks of 2002 in Bali, 2004 in Madrid, 2005 in London, 2008 in Mumbai, and April 2013 at the Boston Marathon. How did the multiple perpetrators of those well-coordinated attacks — all of which were carried out prior to Snowden's June 2013 revelations — hide their communications from detection?

This is a glaring case where propagandists can't keep their stories straight. The implicit premise of this accusation is that The Terrorists didn't know to avoid telephones or how to use effective encryption until Snowden came along and told them. Yet we've been warned for years and years before Snowden that The Terrorists are so diabolical and sophisticated that they engage in all sorts of complex techniques to evade electronic surveillance.

By itself, the glorious mythology of How the U.S. Tracked Osama bin Laden should make anyone embarrassed to make these claims. After all, the central premise of that storyline is that bin Laden only used trusted couriers to communicate because al Qaeda knew for decades to avoid electronic means of communication because the U.S. and others could spy on those communications. Remember all that? Zero Dark Thirty and the "harsh but effective" interrogation of bin Laden's "official messenger"?

Greenwald figures the Snowden blame to be a whole lot of ass-covering for a lot of Western foreign policy failures.

Other reports, as information about the suspects starts to dribble out, show the possibility of yet even more problems with intelligence sharing between countries. The latest, this morning, is that Turkey apparently may have tried to warn France about one of the men over the summer, but apparently never heard back from French officials … until after the attack on Paris.

Why should anybody accept arguments from the likes of Brennan that they must have unfettered access to so much data when we see such poor handling of information that actually matters?

NEXT: Gun Rights Activists March in Ferguson

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  1. How do you expect them to find any needles when they got all this hay to make look through?

  2. He was even given a glowing profile in the Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine (pdf).

    If you thought you weren’t already on a database somewhere with a couple asterisks and maybe an exclamation mark next to your profile…

    1. Boy, I thought it was their desire to launder money by buying overpriced real estate.

    2. Boris? Nah, he’s one of those evil knuckle-dragging Tories. And damn funny.

    3. How long before Londonistan suffers a major attack?

  3. Is there nothing Edward Snowden can’t do?

    1. Give birth?

      1. Probably will… TO THE NEXT HITLER.


        You know who else couldn’t give birth?

        1. Rebekah, in Genesis 25:21?

    2. Get out of Russia.

      Come back to America.

      Trifecta in play ….

  4. I blame terrorism on the things I already don’t like and think should be stopped. Namely, the people who fail to yield the left lane.

    1. You need one of these:…..SX522_.jpg

      1. In Jersey we all have something that serves the same purpose and conveniently it is attached to the center of our hand and extends upward.

      2. I have thought of getting something like that, but then I think about how cops who see that will treat me after pulling me over.

    2. Namely, the people who fail to yield the left lane.

      A Prius has just as much right to the left lane as you do.

    3. Death penalty for those people.

      I’ve heard that in Germany you put on your left indicator to tell people to clear the left lane if you want to pass. Doesn’t seem to work here.

      1. Here it just means they forgot to turn off their signal as they white-line it down the freeway at 17 mph under the limit.

      2. That’s the way it works out here in the West. The one percent of the time that moron actually pays attention to the rear view mirror.

        But I found that in the NE, all using the turn signal does is give those fuckers a *warning* so they can be ready to fuck with you. Sooooo many times I’d come up on someone driving the speed limit in the left lane in an otherwise empty highway, flash lights, etc. When they steadfastly refused to move, I’d hit the blinker, start to make a lane change, just to see the arsehole dive to the right at the same time I did.

        1. Death is too good for them.

  5. Matty Y ever in search of the silver lining..

    Matthew Yglesias ?@mattyglesias 2h2 hours ago
    A massive *French* land invasion of Syria, while a terrible idea, would at least be useful economic stimulus.

    1. That’s just evil.


    3. and Peak Derp, though ever unattainable, still manages to reach some lofty heights.

      1. Matthew Yglesias has made it his life’s work to achieve peak derp. Others say peak derp will never be reached, but by God, Matthew Yglesias will continue to strive until he proves otherwise!

        1. Nah, nah, you guys have got it all wrong. Yglesias is the Julian Simon of Derp. He’s proving that Derp Resources are unlimited.

    4. Jobs for all the unemployed French Muslims?

      1. Institute conscription for all the young unemployed people and send them all to Syria.

        This is not an idea I support, but it is an idea.

        1. So round up all the unemployed middle easterners living in France and send them back?
          A two-fer!

    5. I really, really hope we’re not calling any of these people Liberals any more.

    6. Did sadbeard really publish this shit?

      1. Apparently so. My FB just lit up with all the smug little proggies reposting that.

        1. My FB just lit up

          I think I found your problem…

      2. I kind of thought it was a parody account….that cannot be real, even for Sadbeard.

        1. That can’t not be sarcasm.

    7. What the fuck is he talking about? Don’t the Ruskies have troops there now? How long before French and Russian troops end up in an ‘OOPS’?

      What economic stimulus? Are they going to steal sand and sell it?

      Most of the attackers were European, products of the slums there. What would invading Syria accomplish other than take manpower away from the source of the problem?

      Lastly, did Sadbeard come up with this brilliance while on Thorazine?

  6. As we all know, the PATRIOT act provisions that shredded the constitution have only been used for catching violent terrorists.

    Why should we worry about an all-encompassing police state? All they want to do is catch terrorists amirite?

    1. +1 parallel construction.

    2. Those PATRIOT act provisions were tools that were already in place for going after drug dealers. The act only expanded their use. It didn’t create them.

  7. Darn guy points out the government is breaking the law, and POOF! Terrorists arrive!
    See how that works?

  8. Geeze, if these guys are such criminal masterminds, you’d think they’d at least be up on avoiding the telephone as Paulie from Goodfellas….

  9. The US and the west in general are weak. Look at the events of this past weekend. How many events was there a eulogy, flags, guest french officials/military, anthems etc… over the (tragic) death of about 150. About that many people died on the roads that day in the US.

    I mean man the fuck up already. What kind of message does it send to terrorists or anyone else when we as a nation break down into tears like this? It just eggs them on when they see 24/7 round the clock tear jerking.

    1. I’m not so sure the terrorists give a shit about that stuff.

      1. Recruitment. “Look what you can do! You are but one yet you bring a nation to its knees weeping!” As long as we magnify the attacks we are helping their cause.

        1. Maybe. Still about as likely to happen as the terrorists all just up and deciding that maybe peaceful trade and tolerance is a better way to go.

        2. Yeah, when the attackers are ID’ed, it’d be great if the media, rather than giving a chilled recitation of their bios, just completely belittled them:

          “So-and-so was a French citizen who lived in such-and-such neighborhood for the past ten years. Obviously, he was a little bitch who didn’t have the balls to challenge his enemies to their face but killed unarmed civilians like the shitstain that he is. I’ve heard numerous rumors that he regularly dressed in women’s clothing and his micropenis was hardly functional.” etc. etc.

          1. You make good points, and I tend to agree with you, but there is no need to speak ill of those with a malfunctioning penis.

            1. Don’t mention the micro-penis problem. Or we gotta see Sonny again with the bom-b.

          2. Shit, just put up a tab next to each little shit’s name and picture.

            -Lived in a subsidised apartment for X years – YYYYYY Euros
            -Schooled for 10(12?) years – ZZZZZ Euroes – and his grades sucked
            -Took XXXXX in welfare
            -Spent so much time in prison – at a cost of AAAAA Euros
            -France opressed him by giving him hundreds of thousands of Euros, and whiny loser still couldn’t make anything of himself.

            Though I guess it might have some nasty implications for welfare state.

          3. That is pretty much what the NY Post does already.

          4. Perhaps mention they all belonged NAMBLA, and active accounts in the same club as Slave from South Park in the “Bottoms Up” section.

  10. “Greenwald figures the Snowden blame to be a whole lot of ass-covering for a lot of Western foreign policy failures.”

    In this case, Snowden is used to divert attention from the failures of several countries’ “security” operations. There are numerous officials anxious to avoid questions about what they knew and when did they knew it.

    “Look over there! It’s Snowden!”

    1. “did they know it”.

    2. You know, it really would be a heck of a twist if Snowden was really still a loyal NSA asset. I’m sure he’s been able to gather a lot of information about other countries’ intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities and he’s become an incredibly useful cover for every intelligence failure that comes down the block. Killing a program of limited actual usefulness (mass surveillance) might be a perfectly worthwhile price to pay for that.

  11. “what we often find is a failure of these authorities to adequately communicate with each other. The right information didn’t get into the right hands.”

    I think it’s worse than that. They don’t seem get the job done even when they are given specific warnings about specific people (Boston Bombers). This is just another example, in a long line of examples of a bureaucracy protecting itself. It has to point fingers at others lest it be exposed as the fraud it actually is. And, if their fraud is exposed, they might have to actually work or something.

  12. “…misrepresentation of what the intelligence security services are doing…”

    Brennan is the one misrepresenting. As I understand it the bulk of what they do is spy on suspected drug dealers, tip off cops and then make up lies about how they gained the intel.

    I have yet to see one example of the NSA stopping a terror attack. I am not saying they haven’t, but surely they can produce one concrete example, instead they claim “oh yeah, hundreds” but no specifics.

  13. You know, it really bothers me that NO ONE ever makes Catch-22 jokes about Snowden. I mean, yes, I have, but no one else.

    1. Where are the Snowden jokes of yesteryear?

      1. My theory is that the literate all left with VP. Take me, for instance. I can’t read a word of English. I just look at the pictures in Klassic Komics.

        1. Yeah, i’m functionally illiterate. I usually just pound my fists on the keyboard. If any of my posts on this site have ever been coherent sentences, rather than a nonsensical string of numbers, letters, and punctuation marks, is purely happenstance.

          4 vo;gr; UAw24/fgho;ifjh8u./a][plopsj’to]ajporiutp67

          1. I use Google Translate and translate from Illiterate to Literate, then copy and paste.

    2. That book is really old, that’s why.

    3. Hey, I have too! I did quite a bit when the story first broke. And I happen to be re-reading the book right now.

      Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?

      1. Samesies! I do not remember much from the book so I have recently started reading it again as well.

    4. *drumming fingers in anticipation*

  14. I blame Bush

  15. All this tells me is that the CIA Director needs to be fired immediately….

  16. We choose freedom over surveillance. Edward Snowden is an actual american hero who like all real hero’s will be celebrated and appreciated when he is old or dead. American’s have more to fear from law enforcement than ISIS.

  17. Encryption doesn’t just decrease individual privacy; it decreases security…

    This says the opposite of what is intended.

  18. Brennan: No argument there.
    Snowden: A traitor that deserves execution.

  19. What makes governments dangerous? Power.

    What does government surveillance do? Increases government power.

    “You have nothing to worry about if you have done nothing wrong.”

    That depends on who is defining what is wrong and what is right.

    Are political opponents doing something wrong?

    Are unfavorable news reporters or agencies doing something wrong?

    What happens when the President (any President) or his devotees, who can find out about anyone in the US, does not like someone and decides to do something about it; whether it be political or personal?

    Government officials seem oblivious that the potential for abuse from these programs is astronomical. We can not have government surveillance that in the hands of less than desirable government officials (which is most of them) can silence or destroy dissenters and political opposition.

    We already have a safe that can not be unlocked even with a Judge’s order, it is our mind. Governments have not had a master key or backdoor key to our minds since the beginning of time and we as a species have still managed to survive and multiple.

    It is not about why they pass such ridiculous laws or the purity of their intentions, it is about what some future demented politician might use these laws for.

  20. It’s not his fault, global warming made snowden.

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