Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has responded to leaks showing how the NSA tried (and largely failed) to break through Tor's encryption network. While his statement doesn't shed much new light on the situation, it encapsulates the intelligence community's general response to criticism since the first leaks were published: that the threat of terrorism or other threats to national security makes any arguably legal tactic not only ethical, but vital.
Recently published news articles discuss the intelligence community's interest in tools used to facilitate anonymous online communication. The articles accurately point out that the intelligence community seeks to understand how these tools work and the kind of information being concealed.
However, the articles fail to make clear that the intelligence community's interest in online anonymity services and other online communication and networking tools is based on the undeniable fact that these are the tools our adversaries use to communicate and coordinate attacks against the United States and our allies.
Clapper accuses the articles' authors (unnamed, but likely journalist Glenn Greenwald and security expert Bruce Schneier) of painting an "inaccurate and misleading picture of the intelligence community. The reality is that the men and women at the National Security Agency and across the intelligence community are abiding by the law, respecting the rights of citizens and doing everything they can to help keep our nation safe," he says. To do this, they must "use every intelligence tool available to understand the intent of our foreign adversaries."
"These are the tools our adversaries use to communicate and coordinate attacks against the United States."
In the modern telecommunications era, our adversaries have the ability to hide their messages and discussions among those of innocent people around the world. They use the very same social networking sites, encryption tools and other security features that protect our daily online activities.
These are promises and warnings we've heard many times, and they're all valid defenses of the overall surveillance apparatus. What they don't do, unfortunately, is address the implicit questions that Greenwald and Schneier have posed: should one wing of the US government attempt to undermine the very tools that other branches have helped create? And is it valuable to be able to keep some communications almost completely private, even if terrorists can also exercise this privacy? If the dismissive GCHQ comments of "pseudo-legitimate" Tor uses are any indication, the international intelligence community's answer may be a resounding "No."