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Report: U.S. Intel Hacks al-Qaeda Magazine, Sparking First Amendment Debate

“I don’t think al-Qaeda has a First Amendment right to put out its propaganda..."

A screenshot of an Inspire magazine cover. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Al-Qaeda's English language magazine, which last month labeled the Boston bombers as "great brothers," was reportedly hacked by U.S. intelligence agencis to make content unreadable, according to the Washington Post. This attempt to, at least temporarily, disrupt readers from viewing Inspire magazine has re-ignited a debate regarding the First Amendment and extremist content.

A screenshot of an Inspire magazine cover. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Post's Ellen Nakashima reported that intelligence agencies hacked the online, May 14 issue of Inspire magazine, according to Evan Kohlmannn, who tracks Islamic fundamentalist websites with the firm Flashpoint Global Partners.

Nakashima reported both the National Security Agency and the CIA being involved, but the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the White House and the Pentagon declined to comment.

Here's what Nakashima wrote of the hack:

The operation succeeded, at least temporarily, in thwarting publication of the latest issue of Inspire, the English-language magazine distributed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. When it appeared online, the text on the second page was garbled and the following 20 pages were blank. The sabotaged version was quickly removed from the online forum that hosted it, according to independent analysts who track jihadi Web sites.


“You can make it hard for them to distribute it, or you can mess with the content. And you can mess with the content in a way that is obvious or in ways that are not obvious,” said one intelligence official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal debates.

The Post reported that before each issue is posted online, officials monitoring its production decide whether to disrupt it, as they did with the May 14 issue.

A second intelligence official speaking anonymously told the Post the action taken with magazine, which frequently seeks to incite violence, surrounds a debate "about where do you draw the line on whether or not you should interfere with or take down certain sites."

The Post has more on the two sides of this debate:

“I don’t think al-Qaeda has a First Amendment right to put out its propaganda, to encourage people to commit acts of terrorism,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, who declined to comment on specific cases. “Unfortunately, I think Inspire magazine is a significant threat to the extent that it disseminates information about how to build a bomb or encourages people to get radicalized. It has shown a dangerous effectiveness. And one that’s difficult to address.”

Others contend that disruption is not the best long-run strategy. “The only way that you’re really going to be effective is to help amplify more mainstream moderate Muslim voices,” said Michael E. Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “That’s vastly more effective than trying to disrupt radical voices.”

The debate doesn't just apply how the government handles Inspire magazine either. Individual companies face decisions on if, when and how to censor terrorist content online. In 2011, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) asked Google to begin censoring extremist content on its blogger platform. Prior, Lieberman successfully got Google to allow people to flag videos relating to terrorism on YouTube for removal.

Read the Washington Post's full report about Inspire magazine.



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