What an NSA charm offensive looks like

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 27, 2013 7:02 PM
What an NSA charm offensive looks like

By Jack Shafer

(Reuters) - Banged and bruised in the press over the NSA secrets liberated by Edward Snowden and serialized in the Guardian and the Washington Post, the national security establishment resorted to a little media offense earlier this week with a series of conversations with major news outlets.

As media blitzes go, it was sedate and vague. The "natsec" establishment made its first landing in the Washington Post‘s June 25 print edition, where two unnamed senior intelligence officials speculated about the damage done to U.S. national security by the leaks ("U.S. is worried about security of documents Snowden has").

The Post reported:

"Already, several terrorist groups in various regions of the world have begun to change their method of communication based on disclosures of surveillance programs in the media, the official said. He would not elaborate on the communication modes."

Later that day, two unnamed senior intelligence official presented to CNN a slightly less gauzy picture of the terrorist organizations revising their use of communication technology following Snowden's revelations ("Terrorists try changes after Snowden leaks, official says").

CNN reported:

"‘We can confirm we are seeing indications that several terrorist groups are in fact attempting to change their communications behaviors based specifically on what they are reading about our surveillance programs in the media,' a U.S. intelligence official told CNN."

The media tour included Reuters, which had a similar conversation with "two U.S. national security sources." Its piece, time-stamped two hours after CNN's, reported that "militants have begun responding by altering methods of communication." Like CNN, Reuters learned from the intelligence officials that both Sunni and Shi'ite groups had changed communications methods and that those changes might leave the U.S. blind to future attacks.

How, exactly, had terrorist groups modified their behaviors? Relying more heavily on encryption? Dropping out of chat rooms? Streaming "Zero Dark Thirty" to review Osama bin Laden's communications security faux pas? Resorting to carrier pigeons?

"The officials declined to specify what changes were spotted among militant groups," Reuters reported, "fearing that the more details provided on what was known about their behavior, the easier it would be for them to adapt."

Were the intelligence officials teasing Reuters with their explanation? Or were they inadvertently revealing valuable methods and sources? After all, even vague press accounts about terrorist groups changing the way they converse are likely to be read by the very terrorist groups who intelligence officials observed changing their use of phones and computers. Might not this disclosure also encourage hard U.S. signals collection by encouraging terrorist groups to change the way they are changing their communications practices? It essentially tells terrorist groups that U.S. intelligence just watched them changing or discussing a change in the way they communicate. The shorter form of this disclosure might be, "Hey, terrorist groups! You're communicating in a very sloppy and visible manner!"

The media barnstorming ended, at least temporarily, at the Associated Press, where a story ("Al-Qaida said to be changing its ways after leaks") time-stamped June 26, 3:27 a.m. EDT, also reported assertions by two "U.S. intelligence officials" that "al-Qaida and other terrorists … are working frantically to change how they communicate." Again, the nameless duo declined to provide any details beyond the self-evident.

Although each outlet on the tour added additional reporting beyond what the duo disclosed, and each has done fine work since Snowden dropped his bomb, the stories reek of official spin, of news by press release, of a government handout, and of a coordinated propaganda push. And the unnamed duo's disclosure was a tad redundant. More than two weeks ago, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper went on NBC News to say the Snowden leaks would "obviously give our enemies a ‘playbook' of how to avoid detection."

Of course you will rarely hear beat reporters complain about special briefings like these in which the sources request anonymity and do not say much. If anything, reporters are more likely to file a protest with the unnamed sources if excluded from the whistle-stop because their editors do not want to be beaten on any story, even obvious — as Clapper would put it — stories like this. Besides, it's as likely as not that the two intelligence officials who were the sources for this week's stories are regular intelligence sources for the major news outlets, and it's a time-honored journalistic practice to keep regular sources satisfied if not happy.

You might guess that I find this kind of water-carrying by the press corrupting. I do, but not absolutely corrupting. I'm fairly certain that the reporters who filed the stories cited here have broken stories that have angered the two unnamed intelligence officials and will gladly do so in the future.

Reporters, no matter what beat they cover, work with their government sources at the same time they work against one another, just like Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog in the Warner Bros. cartoons. As long as I don't have to read too many vapid accounts from unnamed intelligence officials, I won't gripe too much.

Less cynical readers have every right to object, and the consumer adviser in me would instruct the unnamed intelligence officials to call a press conference and put their names to their warnings if the news is that urgent. I'd also have intelligence beat reporters and their editors affix warning labels to stories like these to signal readers that the story did not come from their initiative. I want intelligence beat reporters to come clean with their readers when government officials aggressively peddle a story line to the media but will not take personal and professional responsibility for the peddling.

I single out intelligence reporters for abuse here, but the practice exists on every beat. Sometimes the story isn't the story — the meta-story is. When it is, reporters have no excuse not to say so.

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)