The view is common: the leaks have vastly damaged the NSA and GCHQ. The Snowdens and Greenwalds think they are out to sabotage the state’s darker forces, and that they’re good at it. Spy chiefs of course disagree on most counts, but they share the damage assessment: the leaks are the “most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever,” said Sir David Omand, former head of GCHQ, now here at King’s. The NSA is “infinitely weaker” as a result, said Michael Hayden, its former director.
But is that assessment correct? It’s not wrong. But it’s only half the picture.
Snowden — to provoke for good effect — may be to GCHQ what James Bond is to MI6.
“The more I know the more I think: NSA and other intelligence agencies are very capable — better than can be imaged,” observed Jarno Limnéll this morning, a cyber security boffin at Intel Security. He expressed a widespread view, and that is remarkable. The wider public, including very well informed people, see the NSA and GCHQ as vastly efficient, all-powerful, well-oiled machines filled with creative if overambitious geniuses — that is because of the leaks, not despite of them. The public criticism is almost entirely one-directional: they’re doing too much; they’re too efficient, too innovative — precisely the opposite of what people usually associate with a government agencies: passivity, inefficiency, lack of imagination.
This means at least four things.
First: Eddie is probably not such a bad recruitment poster for the intelligence community. You want to play with the biggest data out there, do some really exciting stuff, and serve your country? Exit Silicon Roundabout, enter The Doughnut.
Then the other guy is getting nervous. Last November I was in Beijing to speak about some of these questions with Chinese officials and think tankers. After the conversations had warmed up, I usually asked the question that I was perhaps most curious about. What does Snowden mean for China? The one wide-eyed answer that I heard several times: “It demonstrated a capability gap.” We could not have done most of that. The people I met in Beijing, like our publics, were perhaps most impressed by the creative potential in these agencies. GCHQ seems to be one big Q branch, Q-shaped.
Third: the credibility of Sigint got a short in the arm. If Keith Alexander, for instance, says it is “probable” that Sunni Arab states would seek enrichment if Iran gets a deal, he’s got all the credibility. He’s not just reading their mail, he’s reading their mind. With all this big data crunching, the NSA probably knows what the sheikhs are thinking before they do so themselves. Even if that’s not the case, a good number of important people think it is the case.
And finally: there’s probably a deterrent effect. If you think the world’s most advanced Sigint agencies will see everything — certainly if they really focus their allmighty stare — you probably wonder if you can get away with a high-profile cyber attack, or whatever you’re trying to hide. Yes, that’s really hard to measure. But all deterrence is hard to measure. Hello 3PLA, no more hiding behind the attribution problem.
You take that stirred or shaken?