What is most important to understand about the revelations of massive message interception by the U.S. government is this: in counterterrorist terms, it is a farce.
There is a fallacy behind the current intelligence strategy of the United States, behind this collection of up to three billion phone calls a day, of emails, and even of credit card expenditures, not to mention the government spying on the mass media. It is this:
The more quantity of intelligence, the better it is for preventing terrorism.
In the real, practical world this is untrue, though it might seem counterintuitive. You don’t need — to put it in an exaggerated way — an atomic bomb against a flea. Basically the NSA, as one of my readers suggested, is the digital equivalent of the TSA strip-searching an 80 year-old Minnesota grandmothers rather than profiling and focusing on the likely terrorists.
Isn’t it absurd that the United States — which can’t finish a simple border fence to keep out potential terrorists; can’t stop a would-be terrorist in the U.S. Army who gives a PowerPoint presentation on why he is about to shoot people (Major Nidal Hasan); can’t follow up on Russian intelligence warnings about Chechen terrorist contacts (the Boston bombing); or a dozen similar incidents — must now collect every telephone call in the country?
Isn’t it absurd that under this system, a photo-shop clerk has to stop an attack on Fort Dix by overcoming his fear of appearing “racist” to report a cell of terrorists?
That it was left to brave passengers to jump a would-be “underpants bomber” from Nigeria, because his own father’s warning that he was a terrorist was insufficient?
Isn’t it absurd that terrorists and terrorist supporters visit the White House, hang out with the FBI, and advise the U.S. government on counter-terrorist policy, even while — as CAIR does — advising Muslims not to cooperate with law enforcement? And that they are admiringly quoted in the media?
Meanwhile, a documented, detailed revelation of this behavior in MERIA Journal by Patrick Poole — “Blind to Terror: The U.S. Government’s Disastrous Muslim Outreach Efforts and the Impact on U.S. Middle East Policy” — a report which rationally should bring down the government, does not get covered by a single mass media outlet?
Imagine this scene:
“Sir, we have a telephone call about a potential terrorist attack!”
“Not now, Smithers, I’m giving a tour of our facility to some supporters of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
How about the time when the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem had a (previously jailed) Hamas agent working in their motor pool with direct access to the vehicles and itineraries of all visiting U.S. dignitaries and senior officials?
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.
Obama has now admitted three very important things.
First, the war on terrorism has not been won.
Second, the war on al-Qaeda has not been won, since its continued campaigning is undeniable and it has even grown in Syria — partly thanks to U.S. policy.
Third, the biggest threat on the American homeland is autonomous terrorists who have been inspired by al-Qaeda but are not technically part of the organization. (That allows Obama to claim to be winning the war on al-Qaeda).
What he has not yet admitted: that the Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorist groups or sponsors controlling Egypt, Tunisia, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Turkey, Sudan, Syria, and Iran, while terrorists run free in the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, is not conducive to the protection of America against terrorism. The fact that his policy promotes some of these problems makes things even worse.
Yet the new, expensive, expansive, and time-consuming technological methods are relatively ineffective against the current priorities of anti-American terrorist groups.
Incidentally, Obama policy has been disastrous against radical Islamists. Compared to the time Obama came to office, the Islamists who support violence against America now rule Egypt, Tunisia, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and perhaps soon Syria. Offenses have been stepped up in Somalia and Yemen; are being maintained in Iraq; and still rule over Syria and Iran. In Turkey, an Islamist terror-supporting regime has been embraced by Obama.
This represents a massive retreat, even if it is a largely unnoticed one.
So the problem of growing government spying is three-fold.
— It is against the American system and reduces liberty.
— It is a misapplication of resources. Money is being spent and liberty sacrificed for no real gain.
— Since government decision-making and policy about international terrorism is terrible, the threat is increasing.
If you don’t get value or enhanced security while freedom is being reduced and the enemy is getting stronger, $1 trillion certainly isn’t a bargain.
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His next book, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, written with Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2014. His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, also published by Yale. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.