"It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." - Sherlock Holmes
Tunnel vision is getting to be a nasty habit for our intelligence agencies. Case in point: the Paris terrorists' mode of communication. New details of the Paris attacks carried out last November reveal that it was the consistent use of prepaid burner phones, not encryption, that helped keep the terrorists off the radar of the intelligence services.
Tunnel vision: The CIA's former acting director, Michael Morell, blamed the Paris attack on Internet companies "building encryption without keys," which, he said, was caused by the debate over surveillance prompted by Edward Snowden's disclosures. Former CIA chief James Woolsey said Snowden "has blood on his hands" because, he asserted, the Paris attackers learned from his disclosures how to hide their communications behind encryption. Woolsey said Snowden should be "hanged by the neck until he's dead, rather than merely electrocuted." (Interestingly. this is the same feeling many people have about the snake oil salesmen who sold US lies about Iraqi WMDs.)
There is evidence from a Belgian ISIS raid in January that suggests that the ISIS terror networks involved were communicating in the clear, and that the data on their smartphones was not encrypted. European media outlets are reporting that the location of a raid conducted on a suspected safe house Wednesday morning was extracted from a cellphone, apparently belonging to one of the attackers, found in the trash outside the Bataclan concert hall massacre. Le Monde reported that investigators were able to access the data on the phone, including a detailed map of the concert hall and an SMS messaging saying “we’re off; we’re starting.” Police were also able to trace the phone’s movements. Belgian investigators concluded that Abaaoud directed the foiled operation there by cellphone from Greece — and that despite his attempts to avoid surveillance, his communications were in fact intercepted. Just a few days after the raid, Belgian news website RTL Info ran a whole article titled “What the Terrorist Suspects under Surveillance Were Saying.” It described surveillance over several months, through wiretaps and listening devices placed in the suspects’ car and their apartment.
Turns out it wasn't Snowden's fault. Those crazy terrorists were probably watching old narco movies to learn their MO: BURNER PHONES.
As an article in The New York Times reports: "the three teams in Paris were comparatively disciplined. They used only new phones that they would then discard, including several activated minutes before the attacks, or phones seized from their victims."
The article goes on to give more details of how some phones were used only very briefly in the hours leading up to the attacks. For example: "Security camera footage showed Bilal Hadfi, the youngest of the assailants, as he paced outside the stadium, talking on a cellphone. The phone was activated less than an hour before he detonated his vest." The information come from a 55-page report compiled by the French antiterrorism police for France’s Interior Ministry.
Outside the Bataclan theatre venue, the investigators found a Samsung phone in a dustbin: "It had a Belgian SIM card that had been in use only since the day before the attack. The phone had called just one other number—belonging to an unidentified user in Belgium."
As police pieced together the movements of the attackers, they found yet more burner phones: "Everywhere they went, the attackers left behind their throwaway phones, including in Bobigny, at a villa rented in the name of Ibrahim Abdeslam. When the brigade charged with sweeping the location arrived, it found two unused cellphones still inside their boxes." At another location used by one of the terrorists, the police found dozens of unused burner phones "still in their wrappers."
As The New York Times says, one of the most striking aspects of the phones is that not a single e-mail or online chat message from the attackers was found on them. That seems to be further evidence that they knew such communications were routinely monitored by intelligence agencies. But rather than trying to avoid discovery by using encryption—which would in itself have drawn attention to their accounts—they seem to have stopped using the Internet as a communication channel altogether, and turned to standard cellular network calls on burner phones.
That authorities are only now discovering this fact shows how well the strategy worked.
And it shows the "intelligence" agencies that fit the facts to fit their tunnel vision doesn't work and leaves US all in the dark.