By David K. Shipler
With Congress locked in an ideological impasse, the U.S. government may look weak and bumbling, but it has never been more powerful in collecting personal information about Americans and foreigners—the guilty and the innocent alike. So how was it that the Navy knew less about Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis than the press was able to learn in a few hours? How come Alexis kept his Secret clearance despite police reports that he twice fired a gun, claimed to be hearing voices, and thought his brain was being manipulated by extra-low frequency radiation?
How did the Boston Marathon attackers escape detection, when one of them had been called to the FBI’s attention? And the would-be Christmas Day “underwear” bomber after his father warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria? And—given the global reach of the National Security Agency—the al-Shabab squad in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall? The answers are specific to each case, but among them is this: A dozen years after the 9/11 attacks, the government has still not learned the central lesson of that failure, which is not about amassing information but, rather, how to connect the dots among disparate points of data that have been filtered and focused. The lesson has remained unlearned partly because the indiscriminate collection accumulates unprocessed information so rapidly in such volume as to be practically useless.