In light of DNI Mike Mukasey’s recent weepy plea for more surveillance power, invoking phantom difficulties acquiring Iraqi communications, I find myself wondering about his real audience. Many of us have made the assumption, perhaps uncharitable, that Mukasey and company are overstating the obstacles they face in hopes of getting still broader statutory authority. But there is an alternative hypothesis.
For all the skill and power of American signals intelligence, someone who is determined not to have his communications intercepted can probably manage it with a combination of strong cryptography, steganography, anonymizing routers, and other baffles. Of course, every additional such precaution adds a certain amount of hassle to communications, but if you think you’re at the top of the NSA’s target list, the hassle is worth it.
Assuming we’re at a point where a sufficiently determined terrorist can send and receive messages impenetrable to SIGINT analysts, at least on any useful timeframe, the best investment of intel resources might not be in expanding cryptanalysis capability, but in convincing our enemies that there are serious and damaging limits on our intercept capabilities. Which is exactly what they appear to have spent the last year or so trying to do. Is it paranoid to suspect that this whole protracted battle is (in part) an elaborate kabuki staged for the benefit of terrorists abroad?
I write this on the assumption that Al Qaeda is not closely monitoring my personal blog. If they are: Cut it out, guys. Seriously.