NEW YORK –- In April 2011, the Associated Press reported that U.S. airstrikes in Yemen 15 months earlier had forced al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to reconsider how it communicates.
Following deadly strikes, the militant Islamist group had realized it was “up against the National Security Agency and the Predator drones that can hover out of sight and intercept phone calls,” Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman wrote. AQAP members, they reported, had increasingly started using walkie talkies and code names, passing information through intermediaries, and shielding email with “highly sophisticated encryption software.”
That 2011 article received renewed attention on Twitter this week amid a slew of national media reports citing anonymous government officials' claims that terrorists have changed their methods of communication following recent NSA leaks. Those reports have coincided with anonymous officials speculating to several major news outlets that Chinese and Russian authorities have likely seized leaked NSA documents or will do so in the near future.
Both scenarios help bolster the government's argument that NSA contractor-turned-fugitive Edward Snowden jeopardized national security by leaking classified documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post. Such coverage, based on claims by anonymous officials, also portrays Snowden as more traitor than whistleblower.
It's no surprise the Obama administration, like all administrations, would leak claims that are advantageous. And reporters covering national security and intelligence routinely need to provide anonymity in order to gain a window into the government. But reporters also need to scrutinize claims that officials are only willing to make anonymously about national security, especially at a moment when they clearly bolster the government’s case against the 30-year-old fugitive being tried in the court of public opinion.
In some recent instances, officials have been quoted making what amount to educated guesses about what Chinese and Russian authorities may have done. In others cases, officials have made claims about changing communication patterns while simultaneously declining to provide details on national security grounds.
“Yes, terrorists change tactics,” Apuzzo tweeted Wednesday, along with his April 2011 story. “But I'd like some evidence that Snowden was revelatory to AQ.”
Anonymous officials this week have told several news organizations -– often using nearly identical language -- that the NSA leaks had prompted members of terrorist groups to change the way they communicate.
A “senior intelligence official” to ABC News on Monday:
“The intelligence community is already seeing indications that several terrorist groups are in fact attempting to change their communication behaviors based on what they’re reading about our surveillance programs in the media.”
Already, several terrorist groups in various regions of the world have begun to change their method of communication based on disclosures of surveillance programs in the media, the official said. He would not elaborate on the communication modes.
A "US intelligence official” to CNN on Tuesday:
“We can confirm we are seeing indications that several terrorist groups are in fact attempting to change their communications behaviors based specifically on what they are reading about our surveillance programs in the media.”
Two “US national security sources” to Reuters on Tuesday:
Intelligence agencies have detected that members of targeted militant organizations, including both Sunni and Shi'ite Islamist groups, have begun altering communications patterns in what was believed to be a direct response to details on eavesdropping leaked by the former U.S. spy agency contractor, two U.S. national security sources said.
Two “U.S. intelligence officials” to the AP on Wednesday:
Two U.S. intelligence officials say members of virtually every terrorist group, including core al-Qaida members, are attempting to change how they communicate, based on what they are reading in the media, to hide from U.S. surveillance.
The AP's Kimberly Dozier noted one specific example of how terrorists may have changed tactics -- they may no longer consider Skype to be a secure platform.
But for the most part, Dozier acknowledged that "officials wouldn't go into details on how they know this, whether it's terrorists switching email accounts or cellphone providers or adopting new encryption techniques."
A situation in which officials will anonymously say something is happening but cannot, or will not, provide evidence forces journalists to violate an unofficial rule: show, don't tell.
The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, the civil liberties columnist who broke several NSA surveillance stories based on documents provided by Snowden, harshly criticized CNN's report on changing tactics as "mindless, government-subservient stenographic journalism."
BELIEVING WITHOUT SEEING
Reports about what Snowden did, or didn't do, since leaving the U.S. have similarly been filled with anonymous sources suggesting worst case scenarios. This week, some have provided little more than assumptions and educated guesses that the Chinese and Russians must have seized a large cache of NSA documents.
CNN's Barbara Starr wrote Tuesday that “one assumption is underpinning the US analysis: The belief that China copied and read whatever documents he had in Hong Kong.”
"Given his stay in Hong Kong and the number of days he was there, the assumption has to be everything he had was compromised," an anonymous official told Starr. The same official, she wrote, also “didn't dismiss the notion that Russia may have done the same thing."
Similarly, The Washington Post reported Monday that “U.S. officials said their assumption is that China and Russia have copied the materials that Snowden took from classified U.S. networks but that they had no way to confirm those countries had done so.”
“That stuff is gone,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in Russia told the Post. “I guarantee the Chinese intelligence service got their hands on that right away. If they imaged the hard drives and then returned them to him, well, then the Russians have that stuff now.”
The New York Times also suggested Monday that China had likely obtained the documents based on what two anonymous experts believed to have happened.
“Two Western intelligence experts, who worked for major government spy agencies, said they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong, and that he said were with him during his stay at a Hong Kong hotel,” The Times reported.
And on Wednesday evening, anonymous officials suggested to the Wall Street Journal that Snowden doesn't understand the documents he obtained, while speculating that Russian authorities would if they had the opportunity to read them. "I'm sure the Russians have people who can make sense of it all, given the chance" the U.S. official told the Journal.
It's possible that officials may be proven correct, and that the leaked NSA documents did fall into the hands of foreign governments. But while Snowden provided details of U.S. spying on China and Hong Kong to the South China Morning Post, there's no evidence he has willingly or unwillingly provided all the documents obtained to the Chinese and Russians.
And yet despite the lack of direct evidence, anonymous government claims have carried significant weight in the media this week, influencing the cable news debate and helping to try Snowden in public, long before any actual trial on charges of espionage takes place.