How Snowden’s naivety has harmed the NSA in his own words.

English: Aerial view of Osama bin Laden's comp...

English: Aerial view of Osama bin Laden’s compound in the pakistani city of Abbottabad made by the CIA. Italiano: Vista aerea del complesso di Osama bin Laden nella città pakistana di Abbottabad realizzata dalla CIA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many people, the NSA’s arguments against Snowden appear hollow as they lack a smoking gun. The NSA has not provided any evidence that the leaks have damaged their ability to collect intelligence and deal with terrorist threats. For some NSA defenders, this has been problem. They want to defend the NSA but to do that they would need to disclose classified material, which would simply add to the Snowden fiasco.

Snowden’s interview with the Guardian changed that situation. In that interview, he demonstrated how his revelations have harmed NSA capabilities. At the same time, he demonstrated a frightening ignorance if not naiveté about intelligence and counter intelligence.

Here is his quotation.

What about the accusation that his leaks have caused untold damage to the intelligence capabilities of the west? “The fact that people know communications can be monitored does not stop people from communicating [digitally]. Because the only choices are to accept the risk, or to not communicate at all,” he says, almost weary at having to spell out what he considers self-evident.

“And when we’re talking about things like terrorist cells, nuclear proliferators – these are organised cells. These are things an individual cannot do on their own. So if they abstain from communicating, we’ve already won. If we’ve basically talked the terrorists out of using our modern communications networks, we have benefited in terms of security – we haven’t lost.” (accessed 20 July 2014) (emphasis added)

On the surface, this appears plausible. The bad guys know they are being monitored so they will stop talking on the web. The problem though is that they may stop talking but it does not follow that they will stop trying to kill people. It just means they will have to find another way to do it.

When we look at the statement closely, we see the stupidity and naiveté. This is obvious in three ways.

First, the 9/11 attacks were planned with limited technology. The NSA and other intelligence agencies only caught whispers but not enough to investigate. The signals intelligence they did find was helpful, but the well-disciplined cell structure made it difficult to see the full picture. Osama bin Laden planned for this approach and understood the need for technological stealth. His use of face-to-face communication and cutouts was a major reason why it took the United States 10 years to find him.[1] Even watching the film Zero Dark Thirty would show this.[2]

Second, the bad guys are not going to stop communicating. They are going to stop using the web, or a system that might be compromised by the NSA. This means the NSA will not be able to track them or find out what they are saying. They will not stop communicating; they will use methods that are difficult to break or take more time and resources, which increase the cost to the NSA. As intelligence, like sushi, is best if it is fresh, this has an immediate effect and cost.

One way that terrorists will continue to communicate is face to face. They will arrange to meet. As they have gone off the electronic grid, it will be harder to know the content of those meetings. As a computer analyst, Mr. Snowden probably does not realize how hard it is to break into an ethnic network based on foreign language dialect. Even if you have translator, you still need to penetrate the network. First, you have to recruit someone into that network. That takes time and they may turn out to be a double agent. The CIA found this out when they lost seven agents in Pakistan trying to find Osama Bin Laden.[3] The Al Qaeda group used a double agent to kill them. Again, Zero Dark Thirty explains this point.

The Guardian knows this because they admitted that Greenwald and other reporters have to spend more time meeting face to face rather than relying on telephone or email to communicate. Alan Rusbridger explained this in his 19 August 2013 article.

The Guardian’s work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights in order to have face-to-face meetings. Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate. Soon we will be back to pen and paper. (Accessed 20 July 2014)

Third, if you have an advantage, you never want to give it up. Intelligence is not a sporting competition where there are rules and parity is virtue. If you lose, you die. If we were to use a sports analogy, you never tell your opponent that you know their weakness and explain it to them. In poker, the opponent’s weakness is their tell. If you want to win, you never tell your opponent their weakness. In the world of the NSA and CIA if you lose, people die so any advantage is always protected. Again, Rusbridger should know this he would protect any source from being revealed for the effect it would have on the source and his own business. Yet, he seems unconcerned with the same situation facing the NSA.

America’s greatest advantage and the terrorist’s greatest weakness was technology. America has a near unassailable advantage in terms of technology. The signals intelligence gave it and its allies a clear and consistent advantage. Now, that advantage is gone. Not only has Snowden stolen the secrets of that advantage, but Greenwald and the Guardian have published them. The terrorist’s tells have been revealed. To regain that advantage, more America agents and assets are going to be killed. America will now have to work harder to track and penetrate those networks. The CIA will have to use agents and assets, rather than technology, to gather intelligence. The United States relies heavily on technology because it values human lives highly and it has a comparative advantage with technology.

Far from being a win, Snowden’s revelations have been a gift to terrorists. The average citizen never had to worry about these issues and never had to worry about them because they were never going to be a NSA target. Even if the NSA collected their information, it was incidental to finding the hard targets. The targets are now harder to find and that will cost both money and lives.

The interview and the consequences from publishing the leaked material tell us a lot about Mr Snowden and Mr Rusbridger. Mr. Rusbridger appears better suited to running a newspaper rather than an intelligence operation and Mr. Snowden has a dangerously limited understanding of the Machiavellian nature of intelligence work. Perhaps like Candide Mr. Snowden will wake up to the brutal Machiavellian world of politics around him. If only Mr Snowden distaste of politics had kept him from making the political decision to steal and disclose America’s secrets. Perhaps Mr. Rusbridger could reflect upon his decision to publish those secrets and be able to explain why it is in the public interest to help terrorists avoid the NSA because the leaks do not help the public do that.


[1] Also, consider the murder of Philip Welsh. He had no electronic signature in his life, which makes it much harder for the police to solve his murder. (Accessed 20 July 2014)

[2] I refer to the film only as a common cultural artefact that suggests the problems of using technology to find someone off the grid. (Accessed 20 July 2014) see also (Accessed 20 July 2014)

[3] (Accessed 20 July 2014)


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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3 Responses to How Snowden’s naivety has harmed the NSA in his own words.

  1. nigelpwsmith says:

    I would not worry unduly. Even the most disciplined of minds can be lazy. It only takes one error to be caught out. Ask Osama… oh you cannot, because he made a lazy mistake!

    • I agree. The problem though is that if that mind is no longer on the grid, it is harder to punish their lazy mistake. Osama Bin Laden was able to elude the CIA and the NSA for 10 years and had a strong enough network that he could launch counter attacks, such as the killing of 7 CIA agents. The United States has lost an important advantage and it will take blood and treasure to restore it if it can be restored.

  2. Kathy says:

    IThanks for this article. I learn so much from your writings about the world situation and you pose questions I have been wondering about. For example, I too have felt frustration..Why doesn’t the NSA stand up for itself and give those of us who know the great harm Snowden has done to our security a “smoking gun” so we can have an answer for Snowden supporters? But as you point out to do so the NSA would have to declassify even more information.

    And yet I think we are approaching a point where we need to begin hearing from the NSA in a forceful tone about why Snowden is no whistleblower. It doesn’t help as well for the new head of the NSA to say that the sky isn’t falling in terms of what Snowden took. And Pres Obama has made one comment on Snowden a year ago calling him a hacker. Surely if Snowden has done the kind of damage to the US that I think he has, the President should be furious and we need to see that anger. To keep silent hoping that Snowden’s publicity tour will end is not working. It just allows Snowden to have the playing field all to himself and he’s laughing at what he’s getting away with

    Which brings us to the question is Snowden’s new self appointed role as a terrorism expert a sign of naivity, narcissism or something more sinister? He’s not stupid after all. Look at the highly sophisticated way he copied the documents, got himself out of the country, hooked up with journalists without the US gov catchig on to any of it? He also tricked colleagues into turning over passwords. So when he says that he’s caused no harm to our ability to track terrorists and as you point out, terrorists communicating face to face and not using electronics gives them the advantage, is Snowden too naive to understand that or does he know it very well?

    I initially wanted to believe Snowden’s misplaced idealism caused him to make a horrendous mistake in taking those docs. I love novels and I guess I wanted a redemption arc involving Snowdenngoing to Russia and immediately realizing what a truly oppresive state looks like but that’s not the man I saw in Alan Rusbridger’s 7 hour interview.

    Thanks again and I look forward to your next article!


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