General Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, told the House Intelligence Committee on June 18th that American surveillance had helped prevent “more than 50 terrorist events” since 9/11 including 10 “homeland-based threats.” However, when Deputy Director Sean Joyce of the FBI told the committee about two of the cases, the first was of a Kansas City man who contacted an extremist in Yeman who was already being watched by U.S. agencies, and the second was a man from San Diego who wanted to send money to a terrorist group in Somalia who was identified through the use of the NSA database.
In other words, two of the ten “homeland-based threats” were really the results of surveillance of known terrorist groups overseas, rather than plots by people in the U.S. who were not already being watched. The article goes on:
“In a rare note of skepticism, Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat, pressed Alexander about why the FBI could not use subpoenas to get the necessary domestic phone logs surrounding a suspicious number without the government’s obtaining logs of everyone’s calls. Alexander said he was open to discussion, but added, “The concern is speed in a crisis.”
Note that the speed in a crisis excuse here is a re-run of the Bush administration’s justification for the use of torture – the bomb is ticking so we need to use water-boarding. However, the police work necessary to prevent terror plots seldom involves the kind of Jack Bauer “24” style drama. Even the cases cited by Deputy Director Joyce were initial conversations, not bomb ticking crisis.
Big Data vs. Real Police Work
In short, anti-terrorism work is police work, it is detective work, it is connecting evidence and figuring things out work. NSA is unable to publically disclose even one case where big data was the principle means by which the agency deterred a real terrorist plot in the United States. If there was such a case, it would be easy for General Alexander to release general details – for example, three men from Ohio were arrested for suspicious activities – without compromising agency methods.
In fact, I believe the scale of the NSA data program (there are numerous stories about thousands of employees and billions of dollars spent on software and giant computer facilities) makes it less effective right now at tracking people who are possible terrorists. That is, having billions of pieces of data and millions of people on watch lists, with more added daily, results in a process too vast to be used by people – the use of intuition and flashes of insight which are important in detective work is removed.
We in Boston are especially sensitive to this issue. The oldest Boston Marathon bomber, targeted for NSA and the FBI by his native Russian government, was not monitored closely enough to prevent his lethal attack. Even more stunning are the hostile Twitter posts of his younger brother. Why were these not flagged? As least part of the answer is the agencies were busy siphoning up billions of pieces of data instead of carefully examining the ones that really mattered. The fascination with technology is pushing aside more tradition and more effective methods of police work.
Now is the Time for Limits
The nature and scale of this surveillance program will only grow larger if we don’t create limits and safeguards while we are in this moment of national debate. Already, there are more than 1,000 government security agencies and over 1,000 private companies invested in surveillance and data management. More than one million people in these agencies and companies have top-secret security clearances. As James Carroll pointed out:
“Such massive bureaucracy, staffed by un-named millions but commanded by no one, generates an impersonal dynamic of its own…Moral responsibility is diffuse. Such a massive institution gathers its own momentum, and neither laws nor the Constitution nor oath-bound authorities may be able to channel it or stop it.”
Remember, this is only a point in time; the expansion of the power to watch you and track your movements is an on-going process. If nothing is done now, I believe the next phase will be a greatly expanded use of surveillance drones, justified as fighting crime.
We suffered grievously when we pushed aside fighting terrorism with police work in favor of using military power to invade and crush our enemies. Let’s not make another terrible error by using computer technology to invade and crush our freedoms.