NSA collecting porn activity to discredit “radicalizers”

posted at 9:01 am on November 27, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Does the latest NSA revelation show the agency creating newer and more humane efforts to defuse potential terrorist situations through discrediting their leaders — or a dangerous new direction for government snooping? Perhaps this might be a little bit of both.  The NSA collected data on six potential targets about their online porn habits as a way to undermine their credibility, according to a new document leaked from the Edward Snowden cache. But were these efforts limited to legitimate counter-terrorism targets?

The National Security Agency has been gathering records of online sexual activity and evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a proposed plan to harm the reputations of those whom the agency believes are radicalizing others through incendiary speeches, according to a top-secret NSA document. The document, provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, identifies six targets, all Muslims, as “exemplars” of how “personal vulnerabilities” can be learned through electronic surveillance, and then exploited to undermine a target’s credibility, reputation and authority.

The NSA document, dated Oct. 3, 2012, repeatedly refers to the power of charges of hypocrisy to undermine such a messenger. “A previous SIGINT” — or signals intelligence, the interception of communications — “assessment report on radicalization indicated that radicalizers appear to be particularly vulnerable in the area of authority when their private and public behaviors are not consistent,” the document argues.

Among the vulnerabilities listed by the NSA that can be effectively exploited are “viewing sexually explicit material online” and “using sexually explicit persuasive language when communicating with inexperienced young girls.”

Actually, a better question might be if any of them are legitimate counter-terrorism targets.  The NSA admits that none of them are accused — so far — of terrorist activities, and that at least one of them qualifies as a “US person.” That status requires a much higher degree of scrutiny for surveillance, but no explanation appears in the story to say whether NSA provided that or not.

One former NSA official defended the program by pointing out that discrediting terrorist leaders by exposing (so to speak) their hypocrisy is a lot cleaner than drone-bombing them:

Stewart Baker, a one-time general counsel for the NSA and a top Homeland Security official in the Bush administration, said that the idea of using potentially embarrassing information to undermine targets is a sound one. “If people are engaged in trying to recruit folks to kill Americans and we can discredit them, we ought to,” said Baker. “On the whole, it’s fairer and maybe more humane” than bombing a target, he said, describing the tactic as “dropping the truth on them.” …

According to the document, the NSA believes that exploiting electronic surveillance to publicly reveal online sexual activities can make it harder for these “radicalizers” to maintain their credibility. “Focusing on access reveals potential vulnerabilities that could be even more effectively exploited when used in combination with vulnerabilities of character or credibility, or both, of the message in order to shape the perception of the messenger as well as that of his followers,” the document argues.

Well, that’s possibly true, but it seems largely theoretical.  That argument ignores the fact that American intelligence is probably not going to carry a lot of weight with these targets’ audiences, even if the data showed the men patronizing JDate.com or something. Radicals would claim that the US falsified the data, and while it might put a few lingering doubts in the minds of some, most will just end up scoffing.

Besides, the NSA isn’t exactly hitting pay dirt here:

One target’s offending argument is that “Non-Muslims are a threat to Islam,” and a vulnerability listed against him is “online promiscuity.” Another target, a foreign citizen the NSA describes as a “respected academic,” holds the offending view that “offensive jihad is justified,” and his vulnerabilities are listed as “online promiscuity” and “publishes articles without checking facts.” A third targeted radical is described as a “well-known media celebrity” based in the Middle East who argues that “the U.S perpetrated the 9/11 attack.” Under vulnerabilities, he is said to lead “a glamorous lifestyle.” A fourth target, who argues that “the U.S. brought the 9/11 attacks on itself” is said to be vulnerable to accusations of “deceitful use of funds.” The document expresses the hope that revealing damaging information about the individuals could undermine their perceived “devotion to the jihadist cause.”

Oh, my! A celebrity lives a glamorous lifestyle!  An academic publishes articles without checking facts! So … he’s basically the New York Times. I kid, I kid ….

The issue here isn’t so much that the NSA tracks the online activities of foreign radicals suspected of involvement in terrorism, although perhaps it should be that they have so little to show for it.  The issue is that the mechanisms in the hands of the NSA could easily be turned against other “US persons” for the exact same purpose the NSA expresses in their document but aimed at political activists here at home.  I’m not saying that either the Bush or Obama administrations have done or do this — but the possibility exists, and with the NSA’s trawling of domestic communications, it’s possible for those inside the intel community to go rogue and do this on their own, too.

Update: My friend Olivier Knox wonders in jest if the “program” wasn’t a backfill for internal activity:

You’ve just made the list, pal. Your frequent visits to the Hello Kitty gift shop will be noted.


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