Critics Knock FBI and CIA Directors for Encryption-Busting ‘Agenda’

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CIA Director John Brennan listens to a reporter's question during a news conference at CIA headquarters in Virginia in December 2014. Larry Downing/Reuters

Updated | French police were still chasing extremists after last Friday’s Paris attacks when top U.S. security officials were calling once again for new tools to crack the coded conversations of suspected terrorists.  

“Now’s the time to act,” said Senator Richard Burr, Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He echoed CIA Director John Brennan and his FBI counterpart, James Comey, who on Wednesday warned that militants are using “a mobile messaging app that's end-to-end encrypted.” Calling the Paris attacks a “wake up call,” Brennan worried in a November 16 speech about "a lot of technological capabilities that are available right now that make it exceptionally difficult, both technically as well as legally, for intelligence and security services” to listen in on those trying to attack the U.S. There is no evidence, however, that the Paris attackers used encrypted devices.

Law enforcement and intelligence officials have long lobbied for new laws requiring software developers to install a “backdoor” to their encryption technology. It’s a demand that has arisen after extremist attacks for more than two decades, always with the same result: defeat at the hands of civil libertarians and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have made fortunes helping businesses—and U.S. government agencies—keep their electronic communications private. Earlier this year, the White House, which has close ties to Silicon Valley, abandoned proposals to require the installation of “backdoor” technology in new communications software.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, new proposals may find traction. But they will likely face yet another line of resistance, this time from former counterterrorism figures such as Richard Clarke, a former top national security adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama; Gilman Louie, who once headed In-Q-Tel, a CIA-backed technology-incubating firm; and former Navy SEAL Mike Janke, CEO and co-founder of Silent Circle, a leading hardware and software encryption firm.

Clarke, the author of Cyber War, a 2010 book that raised alarms about the vulnerability of U.S. infrastructure to foreign cyberassaults, was scathing Wednesday in his denunciation of Comey and Brennan. "Smoke hadn't even cleared from the Paris attack when the FBI was saying we need [to break] encryption,” Clarke tells Newsweek in a telephone interview. “You had Comey and Brennan running around assuming that these guys had used encryption without any evidence that they had.”

“I just think it's unseemly for Comey and Brennan to be taking advantage of this tragedy for their agendas,” Clarke adds. “I hope it doesn't cause the White House to change its mind. I don't think it will.”

A spokesman for Comey did not respond to a request for comment, but the CIA fired back. "Director Brennan has simply pointed out the very real challenges faced by U.S. and European counterterrorism officials in safeguarding the public against terrorist networks that have greatly improved their operational security in the wake of the Snowden disclosures,” CIA spokesman Dean Boyd says. “Those claiming otherwise are knowingly distorting his remarks to push their own agenda.”

But another encryption technology executive, who was highly decorated for counterterrorism missions before and after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, also accused U.S. officials of exploiting the Paris attacks. “What you are seeing is a clever use of media to declare ‘we are going dark,’ which is far from the actual truth,” he says on condition of anonymity because his company counts U.S. intelligence agencies among its customers. “The idea of lobbying for a ‘backdoor’ into technology is pretty absurd, and the world knows this as well. Today, there are hundreds of other tools available to governments that enable them to identify and track the bad guys—traffic analysis, satellites, legal subpoenas and so on.”

Clarke and others have cited two main drawbacks to new rules allowing U.S. intelligence agencies legal access to private communications. One is that police states such as China would follow suit, citing the United States and using the tracking software to monitor dissidents. Another critique is that U.S. laws wouldn't affect foreign software firms. “The bad guys would continue to buy technology from overseas that didn't put backdoors in them,” Clarke says. “So all the good guys would have a plethora of backdoors and the bad guys wouldn't. What’s the point of that?”

Clarke holds a “token investment” in WICKR, “a self-destructing messaging app,” which got a $9 million cash infusion last year from Alsop Louie, a firm founded by Gilbert Louie, who has deep ties to U.S. intelligence. In 2006, Louie won a CIA “Director’s Award” for his stewardship of In-Q-Tel. He also serves on an advisory board to the Senate Intelligence Committee and was recently appointed to the National Commission for Review of Research and Development Programs of the United States Intelligence Community, according to his company biography.

Under Louie’s leadership, In-Q-Tel invested in SafeWeb, a product that “enables Internet users to surf the web anonymously,” according to the company’s 2001 announcement. The idea, of course, was to enable government officials, spies and private industry navigate the Web securely, not bad guys.  

Louie was traveling and could not be reached for immediate comment. But Janke, a former Navy SEAL who is the chairman and co-founder of Silent Circle, says he recognizes that the industry has an image problem, fanned by Comey, Brennan and other U.S. intelligence officials who have long sought encryption-busting legislation. But he says the government—among his biggest customers—is going after the wrong target.

In an announcement scheduled for Thursday, Janke plans to unveil new technology that can detect bad guys who are buying Silent Circle’s wares with “stolen credit cards, fake address and other black market means.” Janke, highly decorated for his classified SEAL missions, concedes that terrorists could just use straw men to buy his technology, but he says it’s better than doing nothing. “Some will thumb their nose at it,” he says by telephone, “but we’re going to put a finger in the eyes of the bad guys.”

In the meantime, Janke and other encryption vendors need not fear Congress is going to bust their business model anytime soon. Even Burr, the loudest voice on the Hill for doing something now, concedes nothing is in the works. It’s just too complicated, he told Politico’s "Morning Cybersecurity" newsletter.

"If I knew what to legislate,” he said, “I probably would've already done it."

Corrections: An earlier version of this story said Mike Janke was a former Navy SEAL commander who won the Silver Star. He was not a commander and did not win the Silver Star. His company’s chief operating officer, Vic Hyder, did. An earlier version of this story also said CIA Director John Brennan favored legislation that would require cellphone manufacturers to install a “backdoor”giving law enforcement access to their devices. Brennan has stopped short of that.