November 24, 2009
Every debate over expanded government surveillance power is invariably framed as one of "security v. privacy and civil liberties" -- as though it's a given that increasing the Government's surveillance authorities will "make us safer." But it has long been clear that the opposite is true.
As numerous experts (such as Rep. Rush Holt) have attempted, with futility, to explain, expanding the scope of raw intelligence data collected by our national security agencies invariably impedes rather than bolsters efforts to detect terrorist plots. This is true for two reasons:
- Eliminating strict content limits on what can be surveilled (along with enforcement safeguards, such as judicial warrants) means that government agents spend substantial time scrutinizing and sorting through communications and other information that have nothing to do with terrorism; and
- Increasing the quantity of what is collected makes it more difficult to find information relevant to actual terrorism plots.
It has been demonstrated that when officials must establish before a court that they have reason to intercept communications -- that is, that they know what they are doing -- we get better intelligence than through indiscriminate collection and fishing expeditions.The failure of the U.S. Government to detect the fairly glaring Northwest Airlines Christmas plot -- despite years and years of constant expansions of Surveillance State powers -- illustrates this dynamic perfectly.
President Obama said yesterday, the Government -- just as was true for 9/11 -- had gathered more than enough information to have detected this plot, or at least to have kept Abdulmutallab off airplanes and out of the country.
Our intelligence agencies -- just as was true for 9/11 -- failed to understand what they had in their possession. Why is that? Because they had too much to process, including too much data wholly unrelated to Terrorism.
In other words, our panic-driven need to vest the Government with more and more surveillance power every time we get scared again by Terrorists -- in the name of keeping us safe -- has exactly the opposite effect. Numerous pieces of evidence prove that.
Today in The Washington Post, that paper's CIA spokesman, David Ignatius, explains that Abdulmutallab never made it onto a no-fly list because there are simply too many reports of suspicious individuals being submitted on a daily basis, which causes the system to be "clogged" -- overloaded -- with information having nothing to do with Terrorism. As a result, actually relevant information ends up obscured or ignored.
Identically, Newsweek's Mike Isikoff and Mark Hosenball report that U.S. intelligence agencies intercept, gather and store so many emails, recorded telephone calls, and other communications that it's simply impossible to sort through or understand what they have, quite possibly causing them to have missed crucial evidence in their possession about both the Fort Hood and Abdulmutallab plots:
This deluge of Internet traffic -- involving e-mailers whose true identity often is not apparent -- is one indication of the volume of raw intelligence U.S. spy agencies have had to sort through as they have tried to assess Awlaki’s influence in the West and elsewhere, said the officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information. The large volume of messages also may help to explain how agencies can become so overwhelmed with data that sometimes it is difficult, if not impossible, to connect potentially important dots.Newsweek adds that intelligence agencies likely possessed emails between accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan and Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki -- as well as recorded telephone calls between al-Awlaki and Abdulmutallab -- but simply failed to analyze or understand what they had intercepted.
The problem is never that the U.S. Government lacks sufficient power to engage in surveillance, interceptions, intelligence-gathering and the like. Long before 9/11 -- from the Cold War -- we have vested extraordinarily broad surveillance powers in the U.S. Government to the point that we have turned ourselves into a National Security and Surveillance State.
Terrorist attacks do not happen because there are too many restrictions on the government's ability to eavesdrop and intercept communications, or because there are too many safeguards and checks. If anything, the opposite is true: the excesses of the Surveillance State -- and the steady abolition of oversights and limits -- have made detection of plots far less likely.
Despite that, we have an insatiable appetite -- especially when we're frightened anew -- to vest more and more unrestricted spying and other powers in our Government, which -- like all governments -- is more than happy to accept them.
UPDATE: Writing in the midst of the FISA debate and on behalf of numerous intelligence professionals, former FBI agent and 9/11 whistleblower Coleen Rowley made similar points in explaining how constantly expanding surveillance and related powers -- driven by fear-mongering over terrorism -- have impeded the government's ability to detect terrorist plots (h/t cj):
Extraneous, irrelevant data clutter the system, making it even harder for analysts to make meaningful future connections. A needle is hard enough to find in the proverbial haystack, without adding still more hay. . . . Quantity cannot substitute for quality. Higher quality data collection depends not only on better guidance with respect to relevance, but also on judiciousness applied from the beginning and throughout the collection process. Unfortunately, case and statutory law has come to be regarded as some kind of nicety -- or a barrier that needs to be overcome. Not so. That law sets standards of relevancy for collection that used to hold down data clutter.Those barriers, standards and oversight mechanisms have been inexorably diminished or abolished entirely over the last decade. And the results are becoming clear.
UPDATE II: Quite relatedly, Spencer Ackerman explains how Obama's new policy of targeting citizens from multiple predominantly Muslim countries for increased scrutiny will also undermine American security. It's so striking how most of the policies we undertake in the name of combating Terrorism -- including our various invasions, bombings and occupations, and our always-escalating Surveillance State -- have exactly the opposite effect.
July 16, 2009
When you hear the word "security" or "safety" watch out. They are the two buzz words that are most often used by the government, whether federal or local, to fearmonger. Fear can be used to drive bad policies that otherwise would be rejected. It has consequences, internationally, nationally, and locally.
- Around the world Americans fight wars because they are afraid that if they do not do so they will be attacked by terrorists.
- Nationally, the Department of Homeland Security grows and grows, compiling extensive data bases on citizens who have done no wrong.
- Locally, police forces grow larger and larger in spite of falling crime rates.
The creep of government and the march of surveillance technology go hand in hand. In Maryland and other states, the push to use ostensibly innocuous technology to enable police to monitor the public has accelerated. There has been some debate in the Washington area about the increasing use of speed cameras, but those who are opposed are usually silenced by the "safety" argument. It is reported that Montgomery County in Maryland has deployed hundreds of cameras and is raking in $53,000 a day in fines. The cameras are sited on busy roads and record the license plates of vehicles going a pre-set speed over the posted limit. Many are located where the speed limit drops, making them electronic speed traps. The fine is mailed to the owner of the car automatically and there is no appeal and no way to determine if the camera was malfunctioning. If the fine is not paid, penalties are added on to it and the offending vehicle has its re-registration blocked.
Governments use "safer" to justify anything and have done so in the past to curtail constitutional rights through abominations like the Patriot Acts and the Military Commissions Act. Burgeoning technologies like speed cameras raise serious personal liberties issue that no one is choosing to address.
- Why should the government have the ability to monitor the movements of a vehicle belonging to a citizen under any circumstances?
- Does anyone know for sure that the speed cameras are not sending their information to some data base at the Department of Homeland Security? Maybe they already are.
Those who might argue that collecting traffic data electronically is not threatening might want to consider that information only has meaning when someone figures out how to use it. The employment of apparently innocuous data bases to police the public has been around for a while.
Shortly after 9/11, CIA was sending officers all over the world, many traveling on authentic US passports issued in false names. An officer I know who was returning from Asia presented his passport to the immigration officer at Dulles Airport. The airport flipped through it, slid it through a scanner, punched a couple of numbers and then asked "What kind of car do you own?" All of the fake passports apparently had some linked data bases that were provided to make them appear more authentic, which is referred to as backstopping.That was in 2002. The all-information all-the-time security state has been much empowered and improved since then and it is to be presumed that there now exists an electronic data base on every citizen.
In this case, the immigration officer was able to pull up additional information from state of Virginia records relating to the traveling officer who, unaware of the DMV link, was arrested, and spent a few uncomfortable hours in the slammer before being bailed by CIA security.
Local governments have an interest in developing ingenious ways to fine the citizenry to raise money, but the more important issue is the government's willingness and ability to electronically monitor people's lives.
The National Security Agency already has the technical capability to monitor all telephone calls taking place within the United States in real time. To judge how close we Americans are to complete surveillance, it is helpful to look at the example of Europe, where state intrusion has been a fact of life for many years.
The United Kingdom, which is now the most constantly and thoroughly technically surveilled country on earth, provides some hint of what the United States might become in a few years. The British government routinely monitors telephone calls and e-mail messages. Cameras provide continuous coverage of the centers of most cities and there is monitoring of all major roads and bridges by CCTV linked to monitors.And then there is the Real ID. Janice Napolitano, Director of Homeland Security, has backed off from the Real ID concept that would have united all relevant data bases on the federal, state, and local levels to create an identity card that would be required for all US citizens and resident aliens. Reportedly, a number of states balked at the expense of integrating their data bases, but there is a fundamental civil liberties issue that is much more important.
To cite only one example, back in March the British media was reporting the disappearance of Claudia Lawrence. Lawrence was working as a chef at a university in York when she disappeared. A BBC report included the following: "It was initially thought Miss Lawrence had disappeared after setting off on the three-mile walk from her home to work the following morning. But she does not appear on any CCTV footage from her normal route."
On the basis of the CCTV, the police ruled out her having walked to work, which means that they were able to reconstruct a three mile route through the city with reasonable assurance that they had not missed Lawrence on the CCTV footage.
That the police would be able to do that and no one bats an eyelash for privacy reasons is astonishing, a level of government surveillance that is several generations beyond speed cameras. It is reminiscent of Winston Smith in 1984 whose television was watching him while he was doing exercises in front of it. Maybe George Orwell knew what was coming.
A huge data base on all citizens incorporating detailed personal information is a formula for control by the state that essentially renders null and void the US Constitution. Can Napolitano make a case that the creation of the Real ID will end terrorist threats? Of course not.
The sponsors of Real ID might be well intentioned and honorable, but they should understand that, in the wrong hands, electronic invasion of privacy can become another tool taking away individual rights and liberties and transferring control to the government.
No one really knows whether a national ID it would really make anyone safer or more secure. Many European countries already have identity documents that are similar to the proposed real ID, yet they have suffered from terrorist attacks and continue to have thousands of illegal immigrants.
The creep towards the technological control of the entire US population continues. It is particularly dangerous because it is largely unregulated, free of any judicial process.
There is no sign that the Obama Administration will do anything to stop the development of new technologies and policing imperatives because more government in everyone's lives is really what the Democratic Party is all about. When government officials start talking about everyone's safety, the people should be aware that those promises are essentially empty and that exchanging liberty for the promise of security will eventually lead to the loss of both.
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