by Jonah Shepp
Not by a long shot, Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman answer, hitting back forcefully at the report claiming that al-Qaeda overhauled its cryptography in response to the Snowden leaks. To begin with, they point out that Recorded Future, the intelligence firm that issued the report, has deep and longstanding financial ties to the US intelligence community and as such cannot be considered an independent referee. Furthermore, another Snowden document reveals that al-Qaeda already knew about Western intelligence agencies’ surveillance technologies and how to get around them, long before Snowden came into the picture:
The Recorded Future “report”—which was actually nothing more than a short blog post—is designed to bolster the year-long fear-mongering campaign of U.S. and British officials arguing that terrorists would realize the need to hide their communications and develop effective means of doing so by virtue of the Snowden reporting. … But actual terrorists—long before the Snowden reporting—have been fixated on developing encryption methods and other techniques to protect their communications from electronic surveillance. And they have succeeded in a quite sophisticated manner.
One document found in the GCHQ archive provided by Snowden is a 45-page, single-spaced manual that the British spy agency calls a “Jihadist Handbook.” Though undated, the content suggests it was originally written in 2002 or 2003: more than 10 years before the Snowden reporting began. It appears to have been last updated shortly after September 2003, and translated into English by GCHQ sometime in 2005 or 2006. … So sophisticated is the 10-year-old “Jihadist Manual” that, in many sections, it is virtually identical to the GCHQ’s own manual, developed years later (in 2010), for instructing its operatives how to keep their communications secure[.]
Greenwald and Fishman also stress that the report offers no evidence to support a causal link between the Snowden leaks and al-Qaeda’s recent crypto upgrades:
Critically, even if one wanted to accept Recorded Future’s timeline as true, there are all sorts of plausible reasons other than Snowden revelations why these groups would have been motivated to develop new encryption protections. One obvious impetus is the August 2013 government boasting to McClatchy (and The Daily Beast) that the State Department ordered the closing of 21 embassies because of what it learned from an intercepted “conference call” among Al Qaeda leaders
This speaks to an infraction we in the media are frequently guilty of: lending greater weight to new information when it feeds into a pre-existing narrative, regardless of whether that new information is credible on its own merits. Officials in the government and the intelligence community have spent the past year crying to the press that Snowden’s revelations have weakened America’s defenses against terrorism by revealing our tradecraft to our enemies. Spooks are not wont to provide proof for such claims, because the evidence always seems to be classified, but “if only we knew what they knew”, we’d see that they were right. And it requires no great leaps of logic to intuit that al-Qaeda and its allies, who clearly know a thing or two about the Internet, might have come across the Snowden leaks and used them to their advantage.
So that narrative, underpinned by intuition but not hard evidence, became conventional, at least on one side of the surveillance debate. There was a demand for proof of that received wisdom, and when something purporting to be that proof came to light, the product was delivered to the market with all due speed. And giving people tools to support the opinions they already hold, rather than distinguishing truth from propaganda, is the core business of much of today’s clickbaity media. That’s a serious problem.
On the other hand, the full impact of these leaks won’t be clear for some time, and the question of whether and to what extent they exposed us to new threats is not conclusively settled, so Snowden and Greenwald can’t claim vindication any more surely than their critics can call them traitors and terrorists. But the broader point, that Snowden shouldn’t be convicted of treason in the court of public opinion solely based on accusations and innuendo, stands strong. We’d do well to remember that the next time we come across “evidence” like this.