The backfiring of the surveillance state

The more unrestricted spying power we give the government, the less likely they are to stop terrorist plots


Glenn Greenwald
January 6, 2010 6:07PM (UTC)

(updated below - Update II)

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:  (1) 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 (2) increasing the quantity of what is collected makes it more difficult to find information relevant to actual terrorism plots.  As Rep. Holt put it when arguing against the obliteration of FISA safeguards and massive expansion of warrantless eavesdropping power which a bipartisan Congress effectuated last year:

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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.  As 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.  Yet 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):

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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.


Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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