A Parliamentary report into the murder of off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby by Muslim extremists last year has pointed the finger of blame squarely at "the major US Communications Service Providers", saying that the only organisation which could have prevented the attack was one such internet-media giant.
The new report was issued by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) this morning. The ISC is intended to provide oversight over the British intelligence apparatus, and in this case the committee were seeking to find out whether the murder of Fusilier Rigby by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, which took place in Woolwich in 2013, could have been prevented.
The two attackers, who had an empty gun and various cutting weapons, first drove into the unarmed, off-duty Rigby in a car at 40mph and then set about the already badly injured soldier with cleavers, killing him. Both were shot by responding armed police but survived to stand trial. Adebolajo was sentenced to a whole-life term of imprisonment and Adebowale to a minimum of 45 years.
Now the ISC's report has been issued. It largely excuses the British intelligence services on the matter of failing to prevent Rigby's murder. However the ISC is quite clear that one organisation - an unnamed US internet company (which could be Facebook, Twitter, Google or one of several other communication-service providers) - could have supplied intelligence which could have saved Rigby.
The ISC report (pdf) says:
Whilst our primary concern throughout the Inquiry was whether the [British intelligence] Agencies acted appropriately given what they knew at the time, we have also considered material that has come to light after the attack. We have found only one issue which could have been decisive. This was the exchange – not seen until after the attack – between Adebowale and an individual overseas (FOXTROT) in December 2012. In this exchange, Adebowale told FOXTROT that he intended to murder a soldier ...
Given how significant this exchange could have proved, we have examined whether MI5 could have obtained access to it before the attack – had they had cause to do so (Adebowale was not under active investigation at the time the exchange took place). We consider it highly unlikely that the Agencies could have obtained it on their own ...
The party which could have made a difference was the company on whose platform the exchange took place. However, this company does not appear to regard itself as under any obligation to ensure that its systems identify such exchanges, or to take action or notify the authorities when its communications services appear to be used by terrorists. There is therefore a risk that, however unintentionally, it provides a safe haven for terrorists to communicate within ...
We have looked at this issue more broadly and discovered that none of the major US Communications Service Providers (CSPs) regard themselves as compelled to comply with UK warrants ...
This is an issue of great concern ... the problem is acute. The Prime Minister, with the National Security Council, should prioritise this issue.
So there you have it. In the view of the ISC - and evidently, the view of the British spooks - US internet companies are under an obligation of some kind to monitor their users for evidence that they are about to commit acts of terrorism. At the moment, indeed, in the view of the British spook community, such firms are a "safe haven for terrorists".
The British intelligence community also believes that the Prime Minister should "prioritise this issue". Given how cross many Americans appear to be about their own spooks and their levels of access to online communications, it's questionable whether there will be much sympathy for the idea that British spies should be given any more co-operation by US internet companies or government agencies.
Indeed, depending on what view one has developed from the ongoing Snowden revelations, it could be possible to suggest that Britain's GCHQ and its allied services already have more access to American communications than US spies do, and asking for more is even more unreasonable.
As for the internet giants themselves, they have always strongly resisted the idea that they have any responsibility for what happens in their networks. Any development which might compel them to do more than mine their users' data for marketing purposes - worse still, to assume any liability for bad things happening to others - will be strongly resisted.
All in all, you have to say that the ISC and the spooks they speak for are probably not going to get very far with this line of argument.
But it's interesting that they said it. ®
It seems the unnamed web giant in question was Facebook, which isn't surprising - or really very important.