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.
As intelligence officers will explain, it is collection, not selection, that drives their daily work. The thicker the file, the better for the career. As the file gets huge and digital, the distortion of priorities is magnified. Yet at the end of the process of sophisticated computer programs that search and sift and sort, as one former official explained to me, you still need a real human being to analyze and act. That places limits on the quantity of information that can be properly digested.
Therefore, the two major steps the government took after 9/11 have been less than effective. First, it broadened collection through the Patriot Act, warrantless surveillance, and amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Second, it broadened distribution of the raw data by demolishing most walls that had prevented various balkanized federal agencies from sharing information. As a result, information has been made so widely accessible, both horizontally and vertically, that low level figures such as Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden could obtain and leak classified documents that they had no professional need to see.
Nor do the agencies themselves have any need to see most of what they collect. Snowden’s documents have described an unleashed NSA whose broad surveillance of the citizenry has generated an overwhelming volume of the data that is completely irrelevant to any legitimate government mission.
It has nothing to do with law enforcement, counter-terrorism, public policy, or even social science research. Who calls whom, who e-mails whom, who texts whom, their locations at all times of the day and night, the Web sites they visit, their medical and travel and banking records all rest in digital form in vast archives in case, someday, some officials, whether honorable or nefarious, take it upon themselves to mine the information to expose, smear, indict, prosecute, threaten, or blackmail individuals over their real crimes or political associations, their suspicious behavior or their personal transgressions.
People who shrug this off as unlikely have forgotten their American history. They don’t take note of the broad intrusions of the FBI, the CIA, the IRS, military intelligence, and other federal agencies, from the 1950s into the 1970s, when much cruder technology was used to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. in an attempt to induce his suicide, to instigate violence between Black Panthers and street gangs, and to disrupt peaceful anti-war movements by planting lies about phony informants.
They forget that the 1917 Espionage Act, now being used as never before to prosecute leakers or whistleblowers (whichever term fits your political predilection) was enacted to facilitate the prosecution of anti-war activists and silence opposition to American entry into World War I. Some 2,000 labor leaders, anarchists, socialists, and citizens who were suspect simply because of their German background were targeted. Socialist newspapers were barred from the mail.
So, even while a resurgent libertarian right today rails against government overreaching, it does not stand up to a government that now obtains a potent weapon, the weapon of intimate information, one easily turned against citizens who engage in unwelcome behavior. As James Risen and Laura Poitras reported in The New York Times, based largely on Snowden’s documents, the goal is to map people’s contacts, connections, associations, and habits, allowing officialdom to assemble complete pictures of citizens’ private lives, to be used someday at will. This can be genuinely helpful in finding co-conspirators after the fact, but virtually no legal restrictions on its broader use exist.
The main purpose of all this high-powered surveillance is not to solve crimes after they have been committed but to make predictions, chiefly about upcoming terrorist attacks. That is most likely to work when multiple conspirators communicate electronically, but only if collection and distribution are more discerning. Even the case of a non-terrorist, mentally ill loner like Aaron Alexis demonstrates the difficulty of noticing red flags and seeing a pattern. All the more reason not to pour all available data into the pool, where it muddies the water. Even if you don’t give a hoot about the Fourth Amendment and just want to stop terrorists, the intelligence has to be germane, actionable, and transmitted in focused ways to the agencies that can take measures. This does not appear to be happening at present.
Still, the government has quite a weapon in its hands. To say that there has been no abuse (that has come to light) is like the National Rifle Association saying that guns don’t kill people; people do. In other words, let’s arm the government and hope that James Madison was dead wrong when he told the Constitutional Convention: “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”