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Why Whistleblowers Can’t Be Blamed for the Paris Attacks

Politicians connect security failures with Edward Snowden leaks, but offer no evidence.

Screen capture from YouTube user TheWikiLeaksChannel via Wikimedia Commons

After an ISIS cell carried out this past weekend’s attacks on Paris, it was only a matter of time before finger-pointing commenced. Rather predictably, some of those fingers are being pointed at Edward Snowden and his leak of NSA documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras. Also unsurprisingly, the politicians, bureaucrats, and current and former intelligence officials making these accusations offer no evidence for their claims, which are going unchallenged in the mainstream media.

Former CIA director R. James Woolsey, speaking on MSNBC, said Snowden has “blood on his hands” after the Paris attacks. Dana Perino, press secretary to President George W. Bush and political pundit on Fox News’ The Five, echoed Woolsey but in far less articulate terms, tweeting, “Also, F Snowden. F him to you know where and back.” And in speaking of the Paris attacks, current CIA director John Brennan blamed the NSA leaks for teaching Islamic terrorists how to use encryption and avoid standard means of electronic communication (as if this weren’t simply a function of common sense).

“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 that have been taken that make our ability collectively, internationally, to find these terrorists much more challenging,” Brennan said after a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, according to The New York Times. “There has been an increase in the operational security of a number of operatives of these terrorist networks as they have gone to school on what it is that they need to do in order to keep their activities concealed from the authorities.”

And in the U.K., London Mayor Boris Johnson, writing in The Daily Telegraph, also placed blame for the Paris attacks on Snowden’s leaks, which included information on the U.K’s GCHQ surveillance programs.

R. James Woolsey, former head of the CIA. Image via Flickr user Christopher Michel

“To some people the whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero; not to me,” Johsnon wrote. “It is pretty clear that his bean-spilling has taught some of the nastiest people on the planet how to avoid being caught; and when the story of the Paris massacre is explained, I would like a better understanding of how so many operatives were able to conspire, and attack multiple locations, without some of their electronic chatter reaching the ears of the police.”

None of these officials and pundits supplied media organizations and their audiences with any evidence that the NSA leaks helped terrorists. On top of that, they seem to be wholly ignorant of the fact that, as both The Intercept and Motherboard reported, jihadi groups were well aware of digital surveillance before the leaks, and had been using encryption technology even before 9/11. And, as this handy graphic from First Look illustrates, the jihadi handbook from 2003 featured an operational security equivalent to the U.K.’s GCHQ spy service.

So it’s a bit irrational and intellectually dishonest to suggest that terrorists suddenly became aware of surveillance and encryption on June 5, 2013, when The Guardian published the first of its many reports on state surveillance programs. One of two things is happening: These public figures haven’t done their homework on terrorist communication security, or they’re bending the truth for political ends. Either way, it’s putting whistleblowers in the crosshairs, and this is not where people like Snowden belong.

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