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Blaming Snowden for the Paris Attacks

When intelligence services fail their calling; when institutions armed to the teeth with surveillance capacities and anti-terrorism laws falter in preventing what was their purpose to prevent, the cult of blame is bound to surface. Given his role in blowing the lid off the surveillance complex of infinite growth and finite gain, Edward Snowden was always fair game after the Paris attacks.

The wounded within the intelligence fraternity strike out with inevitable fury. They were caught with their pants down, an observation more acute given the French surveillance padding introduced after the Charlie Hebdo killings of January this year. This supplemented a 2013 law permitting warrantless surveillance of Internet usage. The French surveillance state was found wanting.

Ha’aretz, through Associated Press, revealed the rather uncomfortable fact that Iraqi intelligence had warned of an ISIS attack a day prior to the slaughter in Paris, conveying a dispatch by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that coalition countries were in for blows. The attacks “in the coming days” would be deployed against countries fighting in Iraq and Syria, and would also include Iran and Russia, employing “bombings or assassinations or hostage taking in the coming days.” [1]

The response? This is the sort of communication French intelligence receives, according to a French security official quizzed on this, received “all the time” and “every day”.

This was subsequently disputed by four Iraqi intelligence officials who conveyed warnings that France was specified in the listing, with details about where the attackers may have trained for their Parisian terror sojourn. Given that the venue was Raqqa in Syria, the Islamic State’s declared de facto capital, eyes should have opened wide in anticipation.

The intelligence also featured warnings about how a sleeper cell would be triggered to assist the attackers, an enterprise involving 24 people, with 19 attackers and five others steering the endeavour and responsible for logistics. This, it would seem, is a bloated security complex so overdeveloped it has lost sight of its feet.

But Snowden, in type and motif, comes to the rescue, co-opted by the vengeful and the exposed. Central Intelligence Agency heads current and former, insist that the whistleblower carry their overburdened can, notwithstanding the fact that Snowden is not linked to any terrorist group.

Current director John Brennan trots out the usual line intelligence agencies do when they feel the liberty faction is winning, and their powers are waning.   A post-Snowden world, frets Brennan, saw an environment that led to a thriving terrorist hot house ever more opaque and undetectable.[2] (He chose not to mention the consequences of foreign policy actions or reactions.)

Former director, James Woolsey, is even more adamant. Snowden, he told MSNBC, had “blood on his hands,” as his disclosures had yielded information on terrorist tracking, which led to an alteration of tactics. No credit, of course, could be given to the jihadists for actually outwitting security services with more material and resources at their disposal. That concession, though credible, would be inconceivable.

This has various consequences. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept suggests that this empowers ISIS. It might not go that far, but it does reveal, in not so subtle ways, a loss of means within the intelligence community.[3] And such a loss of means displayed itself starkly at several stages prior to Snowden’s disclosures. The Madrid train bombing of 2004, the attacks in London the following year, and the Mumbai assaults of 2008 suggest intelligence services asleep at the wheel.

The terrorist operating manual has certainly long featured a warning against using communication devices that reveal material and location. In Greenwald’s sharp description, “Any terrorist capable of tying his own shoe – let alone carrying out a significant attack – has known for decades that speaking on a open telephone and internet lines was to be avoided due to US intelligence” (The Intercept, Nov 15).

Intelligence services naturally seek the lowest gradient of accessibility, encouraging their masters to override encryption protections that have become standard fare in the world of private communications. But states cannot have their security cake and wolf it down too – commercial interests, business transactions and private interests will seek ever more secure channels of communication. The onus is on the intelligence community to get shrewder, seeking ever increasingly unpopular forms of “human” intelligence. The fat cats, in other words, need to get fit.

Alex Shephard in The New Republic sees the “Snowden effect” here as similar to the “Ferguson effect,” thrown up in response to a more relentless critique of policing brutality.[4] The latter claims, without palpable evidence, that police subsequently withdraw in a huff and the criminals rejoice; the former, that intelligence services retreat, or are clipped, and terrorists celebrate.

Such effects tend to assume rhetorical force rather than quantitative credibility. They detract from the structural and procedural failings that have dogged the sharing of intelligence.[5] Europe, it would seem, is not merely struggling to have a unified front on such matters as refugees. It lags in such areas as cooperative security.

Inadvertently though, these spilt milk advocates prove far more revealing than they might wish. The ISIS establishment may well be the only one chuckling with grim satisfaction at this point. Intelligence services, it would seem, are being subjected to a law of diminishing returns, despite larger budgets, roomier facilities, and surveillance powers.

Notes. 

[1] http://www.haaretz.com/world-news/1.686257

[2] https://newrepublic.com/minutes/123888/john-brennan-and-james-woolsey-think-edward-snowden-should-be-blamed-for-the-paris-attacks

[3] https://theintercept.com/2015/11/15/exploiting-emotions-about-paris-to-blame-snowden-distract-from-actual-culprits-who-empowered-isis/

[4] https://newrepublic.com/minutes/123888/john-brennan-and-james-woolsey-think-edward-snowden-should-be-blamed-for-the-paris-attacks

[5] http://www.ibtimes.com/paris-terror-attack-intelligence-failure-not-snowdens-fault-break-down-communication-2185255

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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