In the confusion that followed Friday night’s attacks, French officials were desperate for answers. President Francois Hollande latched onto claims of responsibility from the self-proclaimed Islamic State terrorist group, and on Sunday, the French military conducted a massive bombing campaign over the IS stronghold in Raqqa.
But US officials are also pinning blame on one individual: Edward Snowden. It’s a message that has been echoed through a number of Western media outlets, arguing that Snowden’s unveiling of the US government’s data collection weakened Western intelligence efforts.
The accusation began with former CIA chief James Woolsey, who told MSNBC that the whistleblower has “blood on his hands” for the attacks which left 129 people dead. But these sentiments were also echoed by other US security experts.
"There’s no doubt that the disclosures overall created a situation in which we lost coverage of terrorists," said Matthew Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), according to Yahoo News. Nick Rasmussen, the current director of the NCTC, also blamed Friday’s violence on "the exposure of intelligence collection techniques."
But as Glenn Greenwald points out for the Intercept, those claims are contradicted by the fact that a string of incidents occurred prior to the Snowden revelations. Terrorist attacks struck in 2002 in Bali, 2004 in Madrid, 2005 in London, 2008 in Mumbai, and 2013 in Boston.
All of these took place before Snowden came forward in June of 2013.
Greenwald also points out that while Snowden revealed the extent to which Washington was spying on its own citizens, terrorists organizations had known for decades to avoid communicating through telephone and internet lines.
"This is a glaring case where propagandists can’t keep their stories straight," Greenwald writes. "The implicit premise of this accusation is that The Terrorists didn’t know to avoid telephones or how to use effective encryption until Snowden came along and them. Yet we’ve been warned for years and years before Snowden that The Terrorists are so diabolical and sophisticated that they engage in all sorts of complex techniques to evade electronic surveillance."
In 2001, for instance, long before Snowden became a household name, the Christian Science Monitor reported that "the head of the US National Security Agency has publicly complained that al Qaeda’s sophisticated use of the Internet and encryption techniques have defied Western eavesdropping attempts."
Even prior to the attacks of 9/11, the FBI, under the Clinton administration, was warning that criminal organizations could take advantage of encryption.
"The looming specter of the widespread use of robust, virtually uncrackable encryption is one of the most difficult problems confronting law enforcement as the next century approaches," then-FBI Director Louis Freeh told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1997.
In other words, terrorist organizations didn’t need Snowden to warn them about Western surveillance efforts. They were already well aware.
But pinning the blame on Snowden aids the US government in its push for unwarranted access to any encrypted communication.
"It’s not just Snowden but also their own long-time Surveillance State partners – particularly Apple and Google – who are now being depicted as Terrorist Lovers for enabling people to have privacy on the internet through encryption products," Greenwald writes.
At the same time, this misdirection also allows Western intelligence agencies to avoid accountability in failing to prevent the attacks. Reports indicate that French authorities were monitoring at least one of Friday’s attackers, as well as all three of the gunmen which stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January.
"So when they fail in their ostensible duty, and people die because of that failure, it’s a natural instinct to blame others," Greenwald writes. "If you’re a security agency after a successful Terror attack, you want everyone looking elsewhere, finding all sorts of culprits other than those responsible for stopping such attacks."
Finally, blaming Snowden allows Western governments to avoid questions about the origins and financing of IS. A number of Western officials have ceded that the terrorist group would not exist today if Iraq had not been destabilized during the invasion. US officials have criticized American allies for supporting the terrorist group, and declassified documents have even suggested Washington’s own complicity in the creation of IS.
"Given all this, is there any mystery why 'US officials' and the military-intelligence regime…are desperate to shift blame away from themselves for ISIS and terror attacks and onto Edward Snowden, journalism about surveillance, or encryption-providing tech companies?" Greenwald writes. "Wouldn’t you if you were them?"