WASHINGTON â€" In a pair of public appearances this week, CIA Director John O. Brennan made clear that he blames leaks by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden for enabling terrorists to evade detection.
"Because of a number of unauthorized disclosures, and a lot of hand-wringing over the government's role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists," Brennan said, the CIA and others agencies have lost use of critical tools needed "to find these terrorists."
Brennan's assertion has become a refrain in the two years since Snowden exposed details about a range of U.S. surveillance programs. And former CIA director R. James Woolsey went further, saying on Sunday, "I think Snowden has blood on his hands from these killings in France."
But drawing a line from Snowden to the Paris tragedy is problematic, according to some analysts, because even two years after the leaks it is difficult to isolate the extent to which they caused terrorist networks to change the way they communicate.
The revelations that were the source of greatest controversy involved programs that would likely have been of little value in disrupting the Paris plot, experts said. The National Security Agency's collection of data about the times and durations of billions of domestic phones calls was not designed to pick up calls entirely outside the United States.
A second program that relied heavily on cooperation from companies including AOL, Microsoft and Google was aimed at intercepting email and phone calls between foreign operatives and individuals in the United States. Nothing has changed since that revelation to restrict the NSA's ability to sweep up communications exclusively among foreigners, as was apparently the case for the plot in France.
Other subsequent disclosures undoubtedly gave adversaries including terrorist groups a deeper understanding of the scale of U.S. surveillance capabilities, as well as specific programs that enabled, for example, the NSA and its counterpart in Britain to tap into Google and Yahoo data centers overseas.
But to conclude that those revelations caused enough damage to make the United States and its allies, including France, substantially more vulnerable assumes that terrorist cells would not otherwise have taken precautions that to some seem inevitable, some analysts said.
"Aspiring terrorists already knew the U.S. government was doing everything it could to track and monitor their communications," said Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "What Snowden disclosed was the astonishing extent to which the government's surveillance power had been turned on ordinary citizens. The CIA director knows this. He'd just rather we talk about Snowden's disclosures than about the intelligence community's failures."
But others say that the tremendous publicity surround Snowden's disclosures may well have caused militants to take even greater precautions in their communications than they already were.
"I think you can recognize that the leaks did damage to the United States' ability to monitor some of their communications, while also acknowledging that the jihadists were pretty security-conscious anyway," said William McCants, a Brookings Institution terrorism expert and author of "The ISIS Apocalypse."
Woolsey was head of CIA under President Bill Clinton â€" Photo: CMichel
Investigators are still piecing together details on how the Paris plotters communicated with one another, including whether they were in touch with senior Islamic State operatives in Syria in the days or weeks leading up to the attacks.
U.S. officials have said it is likely that some of those involved in the plot used encrypted communications tools, but officials have stopped short of saying whether they have established that this was the case. Any attempt by the plotters to communicate with handlers in Syria would have raised the risk of exposure significantly, officials said, because of the surveillance assets that the United States and its allies have mobilized against the Islamic State.
Officials and experts are in broad agreement that terrorist groups have ramped up their operational security measures in recent years. And some think Snowden's disclosures accelerated both the development and adoption of encryption technology.
Terrorist groups "adapted to the disclosures by Snowden and have made it more difficult for us to track their whereabouts as well as their plotting and planning," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "I do think the Snowden revelations have had an adverse security impact, because our enemies know far more about our capabilities and programs."
Experts who monitor the communications and social media postings of terrorist groups said there are indications that Islamist militants studied the Snowden coverage.
Rita Katz of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadist activity online, said the Islamic State and al-Qaida have studied documents leaked by Snowden and articles based on the documents. Militants have posted tips on how to avoid NSA surveillance, such as how to register on Twitter without phone verification, she said.
She pointed to a discussion in a jihadist forum in October 2013 â€" at the height of the Snowden revelations â€" calling attention to an "important article related to Tor. Good read."
Tor is a system used by dissidents and militants alike to shield one's identity online by moving encrypted traffic across a global network of servers. The forum moderator concluded that Tor itself "is not broken" and "could be a relative secure option after all." But, he added that jihadists should "switch away" from a particular convenience feature that might have been tampered with and use the regular Tor program.
But concern about jihadist networks adopting sophisticated communications security long predates Snowden. The FBI's then-director, Louis Freeh, was warning about terrorists using "uncrackable encryption" in February 2001. In 2010, the attackers behind the attempted Times Square bombing used encrypted emails to communicate, though the government was still able to read their messages.
McCants, of the Brookings Institution, said tradecraft was a major part of jihadist training in the al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. "In many ways, online discussion boards became a replacement for the camps," he said.
Even fierce critics of Snowden have acknowledged that his disclosures â€" published in The Washington Post, the Guardian and other outlets â€" triggered an important, and possibly overdue, debate over U.S. surveillance practices in the years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. has also suggested that the fallout from the revelations might have been easier to contain if spy agencies hadn't been so determined to preempt public debate even in the broadest terms.
In Brennan's appearance at a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Monday, the CIA director said that "some policy and legal" changes have made the spy agencies' job more difficult.
He did not elaborate, but the most consequential piece of legislation passed after Snowden's leaks, which calls for an end to the bulk collection of phone data, has not yet gone into effect.
Other changes included giving foreigners expanded privacy protections and requiring White House approval for spying on foreign heads of state.
"I don't think any of the policy changes we have made have diminished our capability to combat terrorism," Schiff said.
It's possible that operational details disclosed by Snowden that barely registered with the public nevertheless provided meaningful clues to terrorist groups. U.S. officials including NSA Director Michael S. Rogers have warned that intelligence agencies have lost the trail of terrorist targets they were tracking.
One former senior intelligence official said he had operators report to him that "it's getting harder for me to do my job because we're seeing more of our targets using encrypted communications. Targets would cycle through different services and then disappear. We saw that quite a bit."
FBI Director James B. Comey has warned that terrorists are increasingly turning to encrypted modes of communication, and last year he criticized companies such as Apple for building smartphones and applications whose data can be unlocked only by the user. Officials say that U.S. firms accelerated the development of encryption as a response to the Snowden leaks, in a bid to allay concerns that their platforms were too transparent to spy agencies.
But industry officials familiar with Apple's product development say that the firm's moves to encryption predated the Snowden disclosures and were not sped up by them. "Snowden had nothing to do with it," said one industry official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "It was the ethos to protect the customer â€" not to stymie governmental investigations."
Some analysts who monitor jihadist forums say they have seen scant discussion about Snowden.
Flashpoint did a study on that question last year and found "one or two articles cited," said Evan Kohlmann, the firm's co-founder. "And from the reaction to those articles," he said, it seemed clearly that "they already assumed the NSA was looking in all these various places."
Adam Goldman contributed to this report.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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