In new comments today, FBI Director James Comey is claiming that he “believes” plots linked to the Fourth of July may have been thwarted by a series of arrests by the FBI, and that those plots may have killed people if carried out.
The details were almost preposterously scant, as Comey said 10 people were arrested over four weeks, some tied to ISIS, some tied to the Fourth of July, all of them unnamed. He didn’t say who they were or what they were charged with, but conceded that some were charged with things that weren’t terror related.
Comey went on to say that ISIS is a lot more unpredictable than al-Qaeda was, and that officials “can’t be sure” what, if anything, these operatives are planning to do at any given time.
The FBI has been issuing reports on “terror arrests” on a fairly regular basis for years, and the stories are almost always the same; some foreign-born US citizen is approached by FBI informants, eventually given a fake explosive, and arrested for planning to fake blow something up with it.
That these sorts of dubious arrests have historically been good enough in the eyes of Comey and others to publicly trumpet, and the latest round of arrests didn’t warrant even a mention of names or a broad-brush narrative suggests that the latest “plots” are speculative indeed, and that officials don’t feel comfortable enough with these “not terror” arrests to make them public knowledge.
With most of the major news media lapping up anything even tangentially terror related, Comey likely feels perfectly safe providing an over-vague claim of some arrests of somebody related to the possibility they were going to do something untoward, and indeed the reports largely give him a pass for providing literally no details on what he’s actually talking about.
At the same time, the FBI continues to press for more powers, and likely feels the need to both retroactively justify its July 4 warnings when nothing actually happened, and its demands for new powers by claiming to have foiled something-or-other.
The latest push from Comey has been on backdoor access to all commercial encryption software, suggesting that ISIS uses such software to inconvenience FBI surveillance schemes. That everyone else is also using the same software to ward off the same unwelcome snooping appears not to enter into his calculations.
The commercial encryption effort is likely to fall flat at any rate, as even if Congress theoretically did make all commercial US companies provide deliberately broken software so the FBI could snoop on them more readily, the open source alternatives would remain as robust as ever. Given the federal government’s long history of sabotaging such encryption efforts (see the RSA fiasco), it’s hard to imagine ISIS or anyone else was trusting commercial providers at any rate for anything truly mission critical.