Jihadist websites urged terrorists to change passwords and shift communications to more secure means following the recent disclosure of the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance of the Internet, according to U.S. officials.
Postings monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies called for the changes in online communications and are the first sign of potential damage caused by the publication of the NSA’s large-scale program to monitor Internet traffic through major U.S. data companies.
The once top-secret program known as PRISM was disclosed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who said he exposed the program as infringing on Americans’ civil liberties.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who declassified the program last week, criticized the leaks to the Guardian and Washington Post.
“Disclosing information about the specific methods the government uses to collect communications can obviously give our enemies a ‘playbook’ of how to avoid detection,” Clapper said in a statement.
Intelligence agencies currently are conducting a damage assessment of the disclosures, he said.
The al Qaeda-affiliated, open-access website Ansar al Mujahidin posted several messages earlier this week expressing concern and urging terrorists to seek more secure electronic communications outlets.
Terrorists were critical of the Ansar al Mujahidin website administrators for not doing enough to warn members to the monitoring danger.
One jihadist identified as “Abu Muizz” stated that the NSA program is “very dangerous” as it can access email, chats, stored data, voice transfers, and social networking data. The program was a serious threat to jihadist media groups working through Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites.
In a troubling sign, the jihadist posted links to documents on the PRISM program. That is likely to allow terrorists to avoid or limit monitoring of Internet communications.
A second jihadist urged members of the al Qaeda forum to use software called Tor that can mask online identities and avoid discussing jihadist topics in online voice exchanges.
Another jihadist urged terrorists to use Jitsi, a software program that allows secure video and audio calls and another software called MorphVOX that can mask voices.
The website also included, in an indication that al Qaeda is reacting to the NSA disclosures, illustrations for secure communications from a person who is a member of the closed al Qaeda website Shumukh al-Islam.
Jihadists on Twitter also urged fellow terrorists to avoid using Windows and shift to Linux. One posting said Microsoft had become “one of the CIA’s most dangerous tools” for countering terrorists.
The posting also urged jihadists to seek online security advice from the Global Islamic Media Front.
The administrator of the Al Minbar al Ilami Jihadist Forum, a known outlet for al Qaeda propaganda, issued a statement June 10 stating that the NSA program is aimed at stopping “our jihadist media.”
“Therefore, we draw the attention of member brothers to their need to change their passwords swiftly and continue to do that in order to keep their security,” said a posting attributed to Al Muwwahid Bi Allah.
The disclosures have set in motion a wide debate in the public and government over large-scale monitoring Americans communications and online data in the fight against international terrorism.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) said last week that the monitoring program had thwarted a domestic terrorist attack and “is a very valuable thing. It is legal.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) has emerged as a prominent congressional critic of the NSA program. “The bill of rights are being violated, our rights are being violated and really no government should do this," Paul said.
Disclosure of the NSA surveillance, which has included the gathering of logs of all phone calls made in the United States, comes amid allegations that the Internal Revenue Service unfairly targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
The IRS affair, along with new revelations of government spying on reporters, is raising questions about whether government agencies that have becoming increasingly politicized under President Barack Obama can be trusted to conduct surveillance using Americans’ private data.
A U.S. government spokesman familiar with intelligence matters declined to comment on matter.
The Justice Department and FBI are investigating Snowden, who appeared in a video from a Hong Kong hotel on Sunday and since has disappeared. He suggested in the video interview with the Guardian newspaper that he might defect to Hong Kong, a part of China that he asserted allows free speech and unfiltered Internet access.
News reports on Tuesday also indicated that Russia would be willing to grant Snowden asylum, raising the prospect of a major loss of U.S. electronic intelligence secrets.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama was unaware of Snowden’s presence in Hong Kong when he met Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California. Carney said he was not aware of any discussion between Obama and Xi on the fugitive NSA contractor.
Published reactions around the world to the NSA disclosures ranged from anger among some European governments to relative indifference among Middle Eastern states to claims of hypocrisy in China at U.S. charges of Chinese cyberespionage against the United States.
One Israeli newspaper stated that the surveillance program is the price of battling terrorism.
A commentary in the centrist newspaper Ma’ariv summed up the views of many in the Jewish state: “What is seen in the U.S. as a stunning admission by the administration that it spies on its citizens is seen by Israelis as basic intelligence-gathering.”
For Israel, the battle against terrorism has been “an existential matter for decades.”
“Despite this, most Americans have not yet realized that in order to expose the formation of terror groups beforehand (rather than investigate terror attacks afterwards) one has to infringe on public privacy," the commentator said.
In Russia, state-controlled press reports highlighted the covert relations between U.S. intelligence and private social media and data services.
“People do not realize that Google, Facebook and other resources are not just social networking websites and chat rooms, but active spy programs,” the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda said.
Carney told reporters during a White House briefing that the surveillance program is needed.
“We remain in conflict with al Qaeda,” he said. “Al Qaeda, even though it is greatly diminished, core al-Qaida in particular, remains a threat, and al Qaeda's affiliates remain a threat. … The president is taking every action necessary as commander in chief to ensure that we are adequately protected from that threat.”
The state-controlled Shanghai Jiefang newspaper reported that the NSA program was like the novel 1984.
“Five years ago, Obama came to power waving an ‘anti-George W Bush' banner,” the newspaper stated. “Five years later, he is still exactly the same as George W Bush on invasion of privacy issues. … What is quite subtle and ironic is that the U.S. intended to ‘put pressure' on China over cyber-security issues at the meeting of the heads of state of China and the US on the 7th, but the western media exposed the surveillance scandal on the 6th.”
Hong Kong news media reported that the handling of Snowden will be a harbinger of the future of the Chinese administrative region. Reports from Hong Kong said the U.S. government would seek Beijing’s help in getting Snowden extradited to the United States.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that the “world is watching” the case. “We have to be acutely aware that the world is watching our government's every move. … Ultimately, though, Beijing is in charge of Hong Kong's foreign policy and it has the final say,” the newspaper wrote.
“Much is at stake for the Sino-American relationship and Hong Kong's reputation. Our respect for rights and freedoms and our judicial system are our strengths.”
Another South China Morning Post article outlined Snowden’s options.
Hong Kong’s Fugitive Offenders Ordinance requires a lengthy court process that can take months in response to an extradition request.
Since 1998, when the United States and Hong Kong signed an extradition agreement, 65 people have been extradited from the island.
According to the newspaper, the ordinance requires Hong Kong’s chief executive to comply with instructions from Beijing if the failure to act on the instruction would “significantly affect” China’s defense or foreign affairs interests.
It is unlikely China would force Hong Kong to deport Snowden, who is viewed as an important intelligence source for the Ministry of State Security, the office responsible for security in Hong Kong that operates behinds the scenes.