Instead of this kind of nonsense, the two key elements of counterterrorism are as follows:
First, it is not the quantity of material that counts, but the need to locate and correctly understand the most vital material. This requires your security forces to understand the ideological, psychological, and organizational nature of the threat. Second, it is necessary to be ready to act on this information not only in strategic terms but in political terms.
For example: suppose the U.S. ambassador to Libya warns that the American compound there may be attacked. No response.
Then he tells the deputy chief of mission that he is under attack. No response.
Then, the U.S. military is not allowed to respond.
Then, the president goes to sleep without making a decision about doing anything because of a communications breakdown between the secretaries of Defense and State, and the president goes to sleep because he has a very important fundraiser the next day.
But don’t worry — because three billion telephone calls by Americans are daily being intercepted and supposedly analyzed.
In other words, you have a massive counterterrorist project costing $1 trillion, but when it comes down to it, the thing repeatedly fails.
To quote the former secretary of State: “What difference does it make?”
If one looks at the great intelligence failures of the past, these two points quickly become obvious. Take for example the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941: U.S. naval intelligence had broken Japanese codes — they had the information needed to conclude the attack would take place. Yet a focus on the key to the problem was not achieved. The important messages were not read and interpreted; the strategic mindset of the leadership was not in place.
Or, in another situation: the plans of Nazi Germany to invade the USSR in 1941, and the time and place of the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, were not assessed properly, with devastating results. Of course the techniques were more primitive then, but so were the means of concealment. For instance, the Czech intelligence services — using railroad workers as informants — knew about a big build-up for a German offensive against the USSR. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin overrode the warnings. Soviet analysts predicting a Nazi invasion were punished.
Nothing would have changed if more material was collected.
So what needs to be in place, again, is a focus on the highest-priority material, on analyzing correctly what is available, on having leaders accept it and act upon it. If the U.S. government can’t even figure out what the Muslim Brotherhood is like, or the dangers of supporting Islamists to take over Syria, or the fact that the Turkish regime is an American enemy, or if they can’t even teach military officers who the enemy is … what’s it going to do with scores of billions of telephone calls?
If the material is almost limitless, that actually weakens a focus on the most-needed intelligence regarding the most likely terrorist threats. Imagine going through billions of telephone calls, rather than following up a tip from Russian intelligence on a young Chechen man in Boston who is in contact with terrorists. Or going through the communications between a Yemeni al-Qaeda leader and a U.S. Army major who is assigned as a psychiatrist to Fort Hood.
That is why the old system of getting warrants and focusing on individual email addresses or sites or telephones makes sense, at least if it is only used properly. Then those people who are communicating with known terrorists can be traced further. There are no technological magic spells: if analysts are incompetent, blocked from understanding the relationship between Islam and terrorism, hindered by political correctness and fear of career costs, and leaders are unwilling to take proper action, who cares how much data was collected?
At a time when American leaders and the social atmosphere are discouraging citizens from reporting potential terrorism (the photo-store clerk, the flight-school instructor back before September 11, the brave passengers who jumped a hijacker and then had to worry about lawsuits because they violated someone’s civil rights, the attempts to take away citizens’ guns by laws that wouldn’t stop terrorists), how is a giant facility in Utah going to do a better job?
Decision-makers and intelligence analysts only have so many hours in the day. There can only be so many meetings, only so many priorities. And the policymaking pyramid narrows rapidly toward the top. There is a point of diminishing returns for the size of an intelligence bureaucracy. Lower-priority tasks proliferate; too much paper is generated and meetings are held; the system clogs when it has too much data.
Note the parallel between this broader terrorism policy and the current philosophy of airport security. In both cases, everyone is considered equally suspect. Profiling is minimized. Instead of focusing on the hundred who might be of special interest, a great deal of time, attention, and resources has been spent on 10 million others.
The increased costs of security, Obama has told us, amounts to $1 trillion. Of course, people would say that such money was well-spent. Yet — in security, as in every other aspect of government — money can be spent well or badly, even counterproductively.
Al-Qaeda is even saying openly that it is switching to a strategy of encouraging isolated attacks. Within 24 hours, a British soldier is murdered on a street in London after he seeks and fails to obtain terrorist training in Somalia, and a French soldier is attacked. In Toulouse, France, a terrorist kills or cripples soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren. There are dozens of examples.
Vast amounts of money and resources, though, are being spent in preparing for an exact replay of September 11. And remember that the number of terrorists caught by the TSA hovers around zero. The shoe, underpants, and Times Square bombers weren’t even caught by security at all, and many other such cases can be listed.
In addition to this, the U.S.-Mexico border is practically open.
The ultimate problem is that the number of terrorists is very low, and of the ones who aren’t insane, their characteristics are pretty obvious — about 99 percent of them are revolutionary and violent Islamists.