Friday, November 08, 2013

Talking out of both sides of their mouths

I don't get it. In the wake of the Snowden leaks the intelligence community has basically made two arguments: First, that the leaks are not accurate and the NSA and British intelligence do not intercept as much communication as the leaks say. Second, that the leaks benefit terrorist. Yesterday, Iain Lobban, the head of the British eavesdropping agency, testified that "terrorist groups in Afghanistan, South Asia and the Middle East 'and closer to home' have discussed the Snowden revelations. They have assessed 'the communications packages they use now and the communication packages they wish to move to,' he said, 'to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods.'"

Doesn't one argument undercut the other? If the Snowden leaks really exaggerated the capabilities of British and American intelligence to spy on people, wouldn't publicity that makes it seems like they do more than they really do benefit the intelligence services? That chatter they picked up by militants discussing how to evade detection in the wake of the leaks suggests that militants are going to purposely limit their own communication in an effort to hamper government surveillance efforts. But more limited communication will interfere with their efforts to coordinate attacks. Which is a good thing, right? I mean, isn't stopping those attacks supposed to be the whole point of these programs? Mr. Lobban claims that "The cumulative effect of global media coverage [of the Snowden leaks] will make our job far, far harder for years to come." That might be true if their job is just listening in on people. But if their job is to prevent attacks, wouldn't the opposite be true? Especially if they are not really listening to as many sources as the leaks say. If that were true, then they aren't losing as much from this publicity.

Unless, of course, intelligence agencies are lying when they deny the various Snowden leaks. But that just raises a legitimate question about their own accountability.