An Important Battlefield after Paris: US Counterterrorism Hegemony

Last week, I suggested that most commentators were misinterpreting a speech John Brennan made, assuming he intended to implicate just encryption and Edward Snowden in the Paris attack. Given that he repeatedly invoked changes the Europeans have to make, I think he was also complaining about European efforts to reclaim some data (or Internet software) sovereignty, with the effect that US counterterrorism programs are not as comprehensive. For example, to the extent terrorists use non-US based Internet services, they will elude PRISM, with its easy access to metadata and often content. In the wake of the Paris attack, Berlin-based Telegram shut down a bunch of channels ISIS was using, which suggests that may have been what Brennan was complaining about.

Yet that highlights a key issue: before the Snowden revelations, the US (with the UK and other Five Eyes members) largely could claim to exercise counterterrorism hegemony, in part because of our preferential position on the global telecommunications fiber network, in part because our tech companies served much of the world, and in part because many of our allies preferred to have us do the job. Some of the Snowden revelations — and the German investigation into BND’s partnership with NSA — have shown the cost of that: that the US gets European spooks’ help to spy on European targets of interest solely to the US.

It’s probably most effective to have one hegemonic dragnet, but it’s not clear whether it’s healthy (and now that US hegemony is beginning to crack, the dragnet will likely become less effective).

Given the comments of French Finance Minister Sapin today, US dragnet hegemony will continue to crumble. Along with a call to change certain laws on asset seizures and pre-paid bank cards, Sapin called for Europe to develop its own capability to access and analyze SWIFT data.

Sapin said that the SWIFT system had two computer servers, one in Europe and one in the United States, but that Europe currently relied on U.S. authorities to collect and analyze the vast amounts of data flowing through it to detect security issues.

“We Europeans don’t have the capacity to exploit our own data. I don’t think this can carry on this way,” Sapin told a news conference. “Since we do not have the means to analyze the data located in Europe, we transfer all of this data to the Americans, who have the capacity to analyze it.”

As a reminder, access to SWIFT — Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, the international bank transfer system through which most international transactions take place — has been a contentious issue for some time. Europe tried to demand more equitable access in 2009-2010 when one of the servers for the system got moved to Brussels, only to find the US was cheating on the spirit of the agreement in 2011. What Sapin describes — Europe just sending all its data to the US in bulk — is what came out of that effort to reclaim some control over the data. In the last few years, it has become clear how US control of SWIFT makes it easier to dictate policy, especially regarding sanctions, to allies (I suspect, too, it has been used to collect embarrassing details about EU elite ties to unsavory characters, like Qaddafi). Obviously, having exclusive access to records of who is transferring money to whom can be incredibly valuable for the US, in ways that go well beyond terrorism.

From his comments, it’s unclear whether Sapin says Europe doesn’t have the technical capability or bureaucratic/legal authority to access and analyze this data. Given his explicit comment that the Paris terrorists used pre-paid bank cards to plan their attack (which would probably be adequate to transfer money between Belgium and France), it’s also not clear that the attackers used international transfers that would have shown up on SWIFT. But he’s going to use this opportunity to demand equitable access to the data.

The US would surely love to maintain a monopoly on omniscience. In the name of counterterrorism efficacy, they might be able to make an argument to do so. But either because they’ve already lost that omniscience — or because their dragnet failed to keep France safe — they’re likely to continue to lose that monopoly. It’s not clear that has any benefit for privacy (redundant dragnets are more invasive than single ones). It will likely have consequences for US hegemony more generally.

10 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    u.s. government spying systems

    – losing support at home

    – losing world hegemony

    the long, slow slide down the haystack.

  2. orionATL says:

    here is a bit of history that tells a different tale:
    [… After a string of Paris bombings by members of Algeria’s Armed Fighting Group in 1995 and ’96, France’s security services halted dozens of planned strikes on French soil until the 2012 shooting spree of Al-Qaeda supporter Mohammed Merah in and around Toulouse.

    But until the end of the 1990s, French officials often got little or no help from European and U.S. peers in battling the threat. Having not yet suffered a strike on their own turf or identified extremists in their midst, those allies did not understand the gravity of the threat, French officials said. They resisted French urgings to adopt laws that would allow the arrest of members at all levels of violent networks — the petty thieves who raise financing, document forgers allowing operatives to travel undetected, logistics helpers who obtain arms and explosives and planners of assaults.

    Having been hard at work for two decades countering the threat of strikes like Friday’s, French security officials are resentful of any impugning of their competence in the wake of the Paris attacks. On the contrary, they note, Friday was an excruciating exception to France’s success until now in thwarting most assaults planned on its soil…]

    the french had a round with terrorism in the fifties during the algerian war for independance, a good bit of it domestic terrorism by french army officers.

  3. bloopie2 says:

    One might also analogize to the governmental structure of the United States of America. We are one country, with one central government, but with fifty states that (1) by law have vast individual freedoms and that (2) jealously guard those prerogatives. If one of those fifty states sees that a function needs to be performed, and believes that it can perform that function just as well as the central government, then that function stays home and does not go to D.C. Retaining the role of performing that function also enables the state to perform additional, state-personal functions – that is, it can live and do business differently from its sister states.
    Why wouldn’t the world’s countries — being governed by hordes of nationalistic bureaucrats – not want a similar structure for spying and data control? And it’s now, technologically, very possible. We no longer live in a world of mainframes and dumb terminals; everyone has her own computer. I assume the computing power is available for purchase by most any country. Sovereignty! And getting out from under the thumb of the Etats Unis! USA USA made sense ten or twenty years ago, but no more. Sure, coordination and information sharing will suffer under the decentralized model, but so what? They’re no good at that now, anyway. Set up a structure for sharing (years of contractor work alone, right there!), and if/when it fails, you can blame the other guy.

  4. IAN TURNER says:

    emptywheel said:
    Europe tried to demand more equitable access in 2009-2010 when one of the servers for the system got moved to BRUSSELS, only to find the US was cheating on the spirit of the agreement in 2011.

    I SAY:
    Close,very close but……the center was actually moved to SWITZERLAND [the world’s permanent neutrals] & all non-EU & Non-USA central banks [i.e. the Rest-of-the-World] were offered a choice of primary processing center in the Netherlands [subject to full-EU law] with mirrored copies into Switzerland OR primary processing center in the USA with mirrored back up copies also in a segregated section of the Swiss data center.
    US-originated company SILENT CIRCLE [the NSA-proof smartphone provider] has also moved all of its headquarters to Switzerland, I notice.
    The original data center & mirrored-data-center-as-back up was actually USA & the Netherlands but the boys & girls in Washington DC couldn’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar so they started to misuse the information & cause prosecutions for mundane items [Cuban cigar trading & NOT terrorists].
    Where Marcy is correct of course, is the idea of “defying the hegemon” is growing more & more common..the EU Parliament will learn how to do it,claiming to worried about EU citizens “privacy”,—Microsoft will offer more countries “the German option” [of placing their data centers within National Borders—–even SWIFT will likely learn how to offer two[2] Swiss data centers to their owners the world’s central banks—-and as for the the ultimate prize?
    Well that was laid out by THE ECONOMIST Special Report Oct 3,2015 found at: The Sticky Superpower—in particular the least summary page:
    A new world economic order–Glad confident mornings
    found at:

    • orionATL says:

      “… The original data center & mirrored-data-center-as-back up was actually USA & the Netherlands but the boys & girls in Washington DC couldn’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar so they started to misuse the information & cause prosecutions for mundane items [Cuban cigar trading & NOT terrorists]…”

      i didn’t know that, but it is a very critical, important fact if true.


      because i do not believe the natsec (national security) bureaucracy in the u.s., my home territory, or possibly in the other british colonial nations, give a rat’s ass about terrorism.

      what i suspect they want is policing control of their own peoples, as may be the case in each of the other three colonial nations (i am explicitly including the u.s. as a colony) in the five-eyes firmament, as clearly does the nominal head of this mindless, lawless electronic spying empire, great britain.

      • orionATL says:

        i want to add one more comment about the 5 eyes coaltion of english speaking natilns – great britain and the four of her english speaking colonies, u.s., canada, australia, and new zealand.

        i wonder if the rest of the world, with populations and economic potential vastly exceeding that of any of the five, or the five colllectively,

        i wonder if other nations consider this linguistic-ethnic group’s hegemony in electronic spying an oddity to be pondered or even a potential threat?

  5. orionATL says:

    while the u.s. may be the major funder of this five nation spying junta, buying british assistance for example,

    it is britain that is at the hub of the wheel. this is due to british laws far more lax than american when it comes to spying. it is due to britain having undersea cables on its land.

    but britain is also physically and historically closer to the conflict in the middle east. that conflict is just a long-term working out of the colonialism practiced by britain and france particularly but also by holland, italy, belgium, and even germany.

    syria and iraq were created by british and french colonialist policy.

    israel, long a metal shard in the foot of the arab world, was a colonial creation by britain, backed by france, at the very end of the colonial era.

    the great wisdom of the cheney-bush-rumsfeld invasion and occupation of iraq was that it had the consequence of focusing arab attention on the u.s., britsin, and france rather than on isrsel. for this israelis should be greatful. now israel can proceed with its territorial acquisitions while world attention is focused on the u.s.-british-french war with isil – de facto the second iraq war, no matter that syria is the nominal focus.

    all of this conflict is the long tail of colonialism winding down –

    into which cheney-bush (with willing help from blair) injected an american prescence.

    such clever lads.

  6. Anon Cow says:

    The column and Ian Turner are both wrong (well, inaccurate) about the locations of SWIFT. Given they are the main target of every ambitious criminal gang, never mind other violent people in the news lately, I’m not sure I should be correcting you online. If EW wants more info. then feel free to email me about my former employer.

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