It's Dangerous and Foolish for CIA and NSA to Blame Press for Terrorist Encryption

It's hard to believe our government could get any more wrong on the subject of encryption than FBI Director James Comey and the U.S. Department of Justice have recently been, but it turns out things can always get worse.

Gizmodo reported that CIA Director John Brenner and NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett blamed the media for terrorists turning to encryption in a hearing by the House Intelligence Committee. This is not only a dangerous idea for a free society, it shows that some of our top intelligence folks are drawing precisely the wrong lessons from reality.

A mute press?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Firstly, check out Gizmodo's coverage for the lowdown on how Director Comey said little of substance during the hearing, other than to insist that he isn't an expert.

Now let's dig into what our top intelligence people had to say on the subject of "going dark," the idea that the bad guys can communicate without our good guys knowing about it.

Director Brenner said, "The ability of these terrorists to communicate with one another that makes it very difficult to uncover has been increasing. It’s very frustrating but very concerning. They follow the press, they follow these discussions."

The implication of that statement is that if the press wasn't talking about encryption, terrorists wouldn't know about it. Director Ledgett doubled down on the notion, saying:

We track when our foreign intelligence targets talk about the security of their communication. And we see a growing number of them, because of what’s in the press about the value of encryption, moving towards that.

I don't doubt the veracity of either of these claims, but I take tremendous issue with the implications behind them.

A Free Society

The press's job is to report the news, to opine about the news, and to explore the issues that confront a free society. Encryption is important to all of us, and not just because of the growing threat of political terrorism, but because of the growing instances of credit card theft, identity theft, and every other kind of data thievery occurring around the world.

Encryption is our best defense against these forms of criminal activities, and that's not even counting the actions of foreign governments against our own government, our corporations, and we, the people.

The press would be in complete abrogation of its responsibilities if it kept mum on the subject of encryption. Even if it did so, do the NSA and CIA think that somehow, magically, terrorists wouldn't learn about it?

It's delusional, dangerous, and bizarrely simple.

General Michael Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and the NSA, said last week that FBI Director James Comey thinks he is the gravitational center of the solar system (my paraphrase), and that we the people need to revolve around him. He further stated that Mr. Comey is wrong, that we are the center, and that the FBI needs to do what is good for us.

My interpretation is that Director Comey and the FBI have lost sight of who is important. While law enforcement plays a vital role in protecting the country, the point of law enforcement is to work for the benefit and pleasure of the citizens and protect their rights, not to trample those rights by having the citizens bend for the pleasure and ease of law enforcement.

It's possible that the current directors of the FBI and NSA have fallen victim to the same myopia, that they think we are here to service the needs of the intelligence services. If so, they are wrong.

Next: Lessons from Reality

Page 2 - Lessons from Reality



What really gets my goat is the suggestion that if we would all just shut up about encryption, the bad guys would keep doing the same old things that allowed the NSA and CIA to enter what General Hayden called a "golden age of surveillance."

For years, the intelligence services have used compliant courts, compliant corporate powers, a compliant Congress and White House, and a compliant populace scared by the threat of terrorism to sit back, collect all of our data—even communications from people neither suspected nor accused of wrongdoing—so it could sift through it looking for the bad guys.

I get how attractive this is. I truly do, but I don't believe a free society can long survive such treatment, and I am glad that companies like Apple are motivated to help us keep our data private. That it makes things harder for the government to surveil the bad guys is less important than the fact that it makes we the people stronger.


The most important issue here are the lessons the intelligence community and law enforcement should be learning. That the press has played a role in educating terrorists is proof that the encryption genie can NOT be crammed back into its bottle.

That's easy for me to say, of course, but it's reality. It's also what Harvard said earlier this month when it pointed out that the Internet of Things is a surveillance playground.

There's one other aspect of encryption and reality that makes me furious about the statements from Messrs. Brenner and Ledgett. Open source has been a boon for encryption, and the benefits of having a free and open discussion on encryption has protected our people, our companies, our government, and those same intelligence services that are complaining about a yappy press.

You can't have it both ways—it makes no sense, it's dangerous, and its worrisome to hear such high-ranking people making such statements.

Rather than foolishly suggesting we can go back to a world of backdoors in our encryption—as Mr. Comey has done—or pointlessly whining about it—as Directors Brenner and Ledgett have done—all three of these men's agencies should move on and find new ways to fight the bad guys.