How Edward Snowden Helped Terrorists Succeed

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In his latest book, investigative journalist and former Harvard professor Edward Jay Epstein analyses how Edward Snowden’s massive leaks regarding U.S. security enabled an entire generation of terrorists to circumvent government intelligence.

In How America Lost Its Secrets: Snowden, the Man and the Theft , which will be released this week,  Epstein explains how terrorists, whom the government was once able to track down and stop, have taken Snowden’s advice on how to evade security services. To our detriment, they have been successful.

In an excerpt from the book published by Newsweek magazine, Epstein outlines exactly how government agencies operated before Snowden’s disclosures and how they now have been left bereft of many important tools.

Specifically, Snowden exposed:

The Reach of the PRISM Program

Before Snowden’s disclosure, jihadis overseas – from Iraq to Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan believed  their communications were safe because of encryption as well as other safeguards used by Apple, Google, Twitter and WhatsApp. What they didn’t know was their information could be intercepted before it was encrypted.  This was because all data on the internet traveled first through fiber cables in the U.S. and the Bahamas.

U.S. intelligence called the PRISM program “the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports.”  Epstein quotes General Michael Hayden, the NSA director for the three years following the 9/11 attack, who wrote that the program,  “uncovered illicit financing networks, detected suspect travel, discovered ties to aviation schools, linked transportation employees to associates of terrorists, drew connections to the illicit purchases of arms, tied U.S. persons to [9/11 mastermind] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and discovered a suspect terrorist on the no-fly list who was already in the United States.”

It was due to the PRISM that an enormous bombing attack on the subway stations under New York City’s Time Square and Grand Central Station was thwarted. In sum, 45 terrorist attacks were prevented in the U.S. between 2007 and 2013 because of PRISM.

After Snowden’s revelations, internet applications like WhatApp and others began using end-to-end encryption to talk about and coordinate attacks to avoid detection. ISIS even offered tutorials on its website on how to use these applications.


The XKeyscore program

This program, which was used in conjunction with PRISM, was able to make a “digital fingerprint” of a potential terrorist based on the ways the individual searched for data on the internet. The program was effective because it was able to pick up data on the individual regardless of whether he or she was using the same computer or the same username.   

After Snowden’s disclosures about the program, terrorists learned to change their searches when using different user names to evade detection by XKeyscore.

Snowden also provided information about how the NSA and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), operate. He offered tips on how to avoid detection, specifically aimed at jihadis.

Epstein, who taught political Science at UCLA, MIT and Harvard before making a career move into fulltime investigative journalism, is the author of a number of books ranging in topics from the Warren Commission report on the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy to an expose about the diamond industry in South Africa.

How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft is set to be released January 17 and is available on Amazon.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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