The New York Times is discussing how U.S. Intelligence efforts are faltering in the face of leaks. Apparently a plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Yemen was revealed by major news sources.
I suspect it came as no surprise to Ayman al-Zawahri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi that their phones or e-mail or perhaps Twitter accounts were compromised. Furthermore, if U.S. intelligence has the available resources to monitor ordinary American citizens communication, it stands to reason they already have tapped the wires of all major figures. Parliamentarians, politicians and premiers should have realized their private communications were not so private long ago. Mad bombers and other well-known crooks have known for decades that their phone lines often run through the police stations.
Popular movies constantly show the bad guys buying and tossing cheap cell phones, using special code words, and quickly burning exchanged notes. This is to be expected if someone is attempting to avoid arrest and prosecution for illegal acts. To stay one step ahead the cops must employ a man on the inside, vans with signal intercept equipment and smart code-breakers.
Everyone in the loop needs to watch out for the mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Globe. She will certainly print the entire investigation on the front page not long after she gets wind of it. Bemoaning the obvious fact that secrets get revealed seems pointless.
Chasing down and prosecuting the leakers has also been a popular effort among governments. They figure once they jail the very last reporter or whistle-blower they will be able to return to investigating and spying without much oversight. But that too is a Sisyphean effort since there will always be another young idealist ready to take the place of every Edward Snowden or Daniel Ellsberg.
If you watch many of the spy and crime movies to the very end you may notice that investigators for various government agencies and news reporters sometimes resort to more overt means in order to solve a mystery. They talk to each other, they share ideas, they negotiate, and they identify mutual goals. These methods are not as exciting as bullets and wiretaps but they often accomplish the same ends, with less blood shed.
If espionage and subterfuge don’t work spy agencies and diplomats will also need to fall back to other means such as diplomacy, conferences and fostering mutual agreements with nations that have similar anti-terrorist goals. Negotiations, meetings and intelligence-sharing agreements are not nearly so profitable to government sub-contractors as bullets, UAV missiles and mass-surveillance but cooperation has proven to be an effective tool in the past.