A former top official at the National Security Agency says the Islamic State terrorist group has “clearly” capitalized on the voluminous leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and is exploiting the top-secret disclosures to evade U.S. intelligence.
Bottom line: Islamic State killers are harder to find because they know how to avoid detection.
Chris Inglis was the NSA’s deputy director during Mr. Snowden’s flood of documents to the news media last year. Mr. Snowden disclosed how the agency eavesdrops, including spying on Internet communications such as emails and on the Web’s ubiquitous social media.
Asked by The Washington Times if the Islamic State has studied Mr. Snowden’s documents and taken action, Mr. Inglis answered, “Clearly.”
The top-secret spill has proven ready-made for the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIL or ISIS). It relies heavily on Internet channels to communicate internally and to spread propaganda.
Mr. Snowden “went way beyond disclosing things that bore on privacy concerns,” said Mr. Inglis, who retired in January. “‘Sources and methods’ is what we say inside the intelligence community — the means and methods we use to hold our adversaries at risk, and ISIL is clearly one of those.
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“Having disclosed all of those methods, or at least some degree of those methods, it would be impossible to imagine that, as intelligent as they are in the use of technology, in the employment of communications for their own purposes, it’s impossible to imagine that they wouldn’t understand how they might be at risk to intelligence services around the world, not the least of which is the U.S. And they necessarily do what they think is in their best interest to defend themselves,” he said.
Another former official also bemoans the damage Mr. Snowden has done.
Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden ran the NSA when al Qaeda struck on Sept. 11, 2001. He moved to modernize technology and methodology in an agency that some internal critics said “had gone deaf” in the 1990s.
“The changed communications practices and patterns of terrorist groups following the Snowden revelations have impacted our ability to track and monitor these groups,” said Mr. Hayden, who writes a bimonthly column for The Times.
Matthew G. Olsen, who directs the National Counterterrorism Center, supports Mr. Hayden’s assessment.
“Following the disclosure of the stolen NSA documents, terrorists are changing how they communicate to avoid surveillance. They are moving to more secure communications platforms, using encryption and avoiding electronic communications altogether,” Mr. Olsen, a former NSA general counsel, said Wednesday at the Brookings Institution. “This is a problem for us in many areas where we have limited human collection and depend on intercepted communications to identify and disrupt plots.”
A former military official said some Islamic State operators have virtually disappeared, giving no hint as to their whereabouts or actions.
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, an Iraqi devoted to former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, is known to practice evasive tradecraft that undoubtedly improved because of Mr. Snowden’s disclosures.
A former military intelligence official said the U.S. thought it had killed him several times when he was a chieftain in al Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the Islamic State. The U.S. later discovered he had passed his communication devices to another terrorist whom intelligence agencies tracked thinking he was the man who then went by the name Abu Dura.
Some of the documents turned over by Mr. Snowden, principally to Great Britain’s The Guardian and to The Washington Post, provided precise details on how the U.S. tracks an al Qaeda operative.
Thus, officials argue, Islamic State operatives reading the series of Snowden documents and news stories know what types of communication to avoid or how to make them more secure.
For example, Mr. Snowden disclosed an NSA report that told of its involvement in finding and then killing bin Laden confidant Hassan Ghul in October 2012.
It was Ghul’s wife who unwittingly betrayed him by mentioning her husband’s living conditions in an email intercepted by the NSA.
“In Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyberespionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might ‘bed down,’” The Post said, based on Mr. Snowden’s collection.
A Senate defense committee staffer said Thursday: “Our lax security has provided our adversaries with a gold mine of information about our tactics and procedures.”
Mr. Snowden’s leaks came in 2013 before the Islamic State became widely known as a vicious terrorist group and army rolled into one, determined to attack America. In June it rampaged through Iraq, brutally conquering territory, and recently beheaded two American journalists.
Today a fugitive from U.S. justice in Russia, Mr. Snowden won sympathy from liberals, libertarians and some conservatives for exposing the NSA’s mass collection of communications to spy on enemies and allies alike.
Now that the U.S. has a new and especially vicious enemy, the Islamic State may sway some Snowden supporters to take a second look.
What angers intelligence officials is that Mr. Snowden claims to be an activist and reformer on the issue of privacy, yet he exposed basic spying techniques for finding terrorists who want to kill Americans.
“Snowden’s original pretext that we were violating the law or that we were doing things that were simply inappropriate — the spirit or the letter of the law — has not been borne out,” said Mr. Inglis. “He went way beyond disclosing things that bore on privacy concerns.”