More Snowden leaks - and this time Al Qaeda is the surveillance target

Unredacted NSA power point slides, leaked by Snowden, reveal a program to track terrorists via their mobile phones.

The Guardian/AP
Edward Snowden, former contract employee at the US National Security Agency, in Hong Kong, June 9, 2013.

Earlier this week The New York Times and other newspapers, relying on power point slides stolen from the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden, reported that the US and Britain have been trying to develop better means to spy on the massive amounts of data filtering through smart phones and into the world's telecommunications networks.

A particular target has been smartphone apps – everything from the popular game Angry Birds to photo uploading tools. As the Times wrote:

According to dozens of previously undisclosed classified documents, among the most valuable of those unintended intelligence tools are so-called leaky apps that spew everything from the smartphone identification codes of users to where they have been that day.

The NSA. and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters were working together on how to collect and store data from dozens of smartphone apps by 2007, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA. contractor. Since then, the agencies have traded recipes for grabbing location and planning data when a target uses Google Maps, and for vacuuming up address books, buddy lists, telephone logs and the geographic data embedded in photographs when someone sends a post to the mobile versions of Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter and other Internet services.

The paper also uploaded some of the slides, but with one problem: Amateurish redaction of some details, designed to hide the identity of an NSA employee and make it harder for terrorist groups to make good use of the information, that was no redaction at all. The paper quickly rectified the error but not before the original uploads were snatched by the anti-secrecy website Cryptome – at least according to a Twitter account linked to the website.  (The person who controls the account has since deleted this claim, as well as an assertion that he'd do any redactions himself when "hell freezes over.")

This error highlights the risks of the tens of thousands of Snowden documents that are now floating around among at least a dozen journalists: Promises that all documents will be handled carefully and be fully vetted by responsible reporters are just that. The more documents and different organizations involved, the greater chances for error – and there is little point in closing the barn door after the horses have bolted. 

But what caught my eye in one of the unredacted slides was the mention of Al Qaeda in Iraq being a particular target of the NSA's efforts. The slide reads: "Visual Communicator – Free application that combines Instant Messaging, Photo-Messaging, and Push2Talk capabilities on a mobile platform. VC used on GPRS or 3G networks." The next five words were what the Times tried and failed to redact: "heavily used in AQI Mosul Network." 

The aim as described in the documents is to target mobile phone apps that can give away a target's physical location. The utility of this in tracking terrorists hardly needs to be stated. The document describes a program focusing on clear security interests – Al Qaeda in Iraq, now calling itself Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) – killed thousands in Iraq during the US-led war there and continues to carry out suicide bombings and attacks on civilians there on a weekly basis. ISIS is also deeply involved in the civil war in Syria, and the groups ties to Al Qaeda make it an obvious security concern for the US.

Snowden has often insisted that he isn't interested in exposing intelligence programs that have legitimate security concerns behind them and has gone so far as to say that almost none of the NSA's efforts have anything to do with terrorism. Glenn Greenwald, who's worked with Snowden on releasing NSA documents since at least February of last year, has also made that second claim.

In December Snowden wrote an open letter to "the people of Brazil" (he's been hoping to get asylum there) and in it he claimed:

There is a huge difference between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement – where individuals are targeted based on a reasonable, individualized suspicion – and these programs of dragnet mass surveillance that put entire populations under an all-seeing eye and save copies forever.

These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.

Mr. Greenwald said the following in an interview with CNN's Christian Amanpour last October, after being asked if leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron were correct in saying the world has become a more dangerous place because "bad guys know how we're listening to them and we're not able to do as much intercepting and stopping of these potentially damaging plots as we could in the past":

Let's just use our common sense analyzing the claims of political officials when they say that. Ever since 9/11 British and American officials have screamed terrorism over and over and over every time they get caught doing bad doing things they shouldn't do -- from lying to the public about invading Iraq to setting up a worldwide torture regime to kidnapping people and taking them around the world to be tortured. They just want to put the population in fear by saying that terrorists will get you if you don't want to submit to whatever authority it is that we want to do and that's all they're doing here. It's the same tactic they always use. Let's just use common sense. Every terrorist who's capable of tying their own shoes has long known that the US government and the UK government are trying to monitor their communications in every way that they can. That isn't new. We didn't reveal anything to the terrorists that they didn't already know. What we revealed is that the spying system is largely devoted not to terrorists but is directed at innocent people around the world. That is what was not previously known and that is why American and British officials are so angry because they wanted to hide what the true purpose of the spying system is from the people at whom it's directed. And that is the only thing that's new in what we reported.

Amanpour then plays a short clip of Rep. Mike Rogers saying that if French people understood the uses and intent of NSA telecommunications in that country, which he says is focused on terrorism and security, they'd "be popping champagne corks." Greenwald responds:

Well first of all a lot of people like to ask why is there so much anti-American sentiment around the world all you have to do is listen to that tape of Mike Rogers to understand it he's basically going around telling the world that they ought to be grateful that without their knowledge we're stealing all of their communications data and invading their privacy. None of this has anything to do with terrorism. Is Angela Merkel a terrorist? Are 60 or 70 million French citizens terrorists?... This is is clearly about political power and economic espionage and the claim that this is all about terrorism is seen around the world as what it is. Which is -- pure deceit.

The above two quotes contain a lot of hogwash, not to mention Greenwald's extremely binary thinking on this issue. 

Is all American spying about terrorism? No. And no one in the government ever claimed that. The US Congress has directed the NSA and other intelligence agencies to collect intelligence on foreign governments, just as they collect intelligence on the US.

Is it reasonable to claim that the US and other governments have overplayed the threat of terrorism as justification for acts that erode civil liberties? In my view, absolutely.

But his claim that "none of this has anything to do with terrorism" is not reasonable. That's pure nonsense -- as is his attempt to suggest that any revelations of eavesdropping techniques can't do any harm because terrorists already know all about it. Terrorists may know that the US is trying to spy on them as best it can (just as Germany and France know that). But knowing the precise method is another thing altogether.

The fact is that while intelligence tools created to spy on terrorists could end up being used and misused for other purposes, it's an enormous logical leap from there to claim that "this is is clearly about political power and economic espionage and the claim that this is all about terrorism is seen around the world as what it is. Which is -- pure deceit."

That's an assertion refuted by a careful reading of the documents Greenwald says help prove his position.

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