The battle resumed in February 2015. Michael Steinbach, FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, said it is “irresponsible” for companies like Google and Apple to use software that denies the FBI lawful means to intercept data.
Yet the FBI does have a lawful means to intercept it: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Its scope was vastly expanded by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
It’s worth noting that the FBI never asked Congress to force tech companies to build “back doors” into their products immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Only after Google and Apple took steps to patch existing security vulnerabilities did the bureau suddenly express concern that terrorists might be exploiting this encryption.
In fact, the bureau has a host of legal authorities and technological capabilities at its disposal to intercept and read communications, or even to penetrate facilities or homes to implant audio and video recording devices. The larger problem confronting the FBI and the entire U.S. intelligence community is their over‐reliance on electronic technical collection against terrorist targets.
The best way to disrupt any organized criminal element is to get inside of it physically. But the U.S. government’s counterterrorism policies have made that next to impossible.
The FBI, for example, targets the very Arab‐American and Muslim‐American communities it needs to work with if it hopes to find and neutralize home‐grown violent extremists, including promulgating new rules on profiling that allow for the potential mapping of Arab‐ or Muslim‐American communities. The Justice Department’s refusal to investigate the New York Police Department’s mass surveillance and questionable informant‐recruitment tactics among immigrants in the Arab‐ and Muslim‐American communities has only made matters worse.
Overseas, the Cold War style of spying — relying on U.S. embassies as bases from which CIA and other U.S. government intelligence personnel operate — is increasingly difficult in the areas of the Middle East and southwest Asia undergoing often violent political change.
Steinbach testified about this before the House Homeland Security Committee earlier this month. “The concern is in Syria,” he explained, “the lack of our footprint on the ground in Syria — that the databases won’t have the information we need.”
Notice his reference to technology “databases” rather than the importance of the human element. The U.S. intelligence community’s emphasis should be on the spy on the ground who actually gathers critical information and makes any penetration of a terrorist organization possible.
This problem is true for Yemen as well, as a recent Washington Post story highlighted: