At a Center for Strategic & International Studies talk today, CIA director John Brennan renewed one of the government's favorite lies about spying: that mass surveillance has been successful in stopping a bunch of mysterious threats while it is simultaneously too ineffective to stop real attacks, because of privacy advocates and whistleblowers. Here's what Brennan said:
In the past several years because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of hand wringing over the government's role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists there have been some policy and legal and other actions taken that make our ability collectively, internationally, to find these terrorists much more challenging. I do hope that this is going to be a wake up call, particularly in areas of Europe where I think there has been a misrepresentation of what the intelligence and security service is doing...
You're probably going to hear this lie furiously repeated in the coming weeks and months as security hawks in the US and Europe march toward another ground war in Asia, and renew their calls for a radically strengthened surveillance state. Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept has thoroughly documented the genesis of this lie, but here's the short version: the government can't have it both ways on security. It can't ask that companies and individuals strengthen their defenses against attacks while at the same time demanding companies like Apple and Google to sabotage their users by giving the government the means to break encryption.
None of the NSA's capabilities have been diminished yet
The truth is that we've only begun to reform a small part of the mass surveillance apparatus in the United States; only telephone spying has been limited so far, and the NSA still has a broad reach across most forms of electronic communications. As Marcy Wheeler pointed out earlier today in response to Brennan's remarks, the US hasn't even shut down any of the NSA's controversial programs yet! And other countries are stepping up electronic surveillance authority, so it's not clear what Brennan is talking about when he says that "policy and legal actions" have made surveillance of terrorists more challenging. Is he talking about the sweeping law France passed in July that dramatically expanded the country's surveillance powers?
The US government has not provided a credible story about the effectiveness of mass surveillance. As Greenwald notes, officials have been clamoring about the threat of encryption for more than 20 years, so the idea that terrorists aren't already aware of surveillance countermeasures is preposterous. We've also known since the 9/11 Commission submitted its report that the government's inability to foil the largest and most sophisticated terrorist attack in history was based on its failure to share and analyze information, not because it was unable to scoop up everything that happens on the internet in real-time.
Terrorism's greatest threat is its ability to provoke us into harming ourselves through fear and haste. Don't fall for lazy horror stories from people who want to destroy privacy on the internet for everyone.