Domestic Surveillance: Baby Should Go with Bathwater
The New York Times would have us believe that slow, limited progress = failure:
[…] the results of the [NSA intercept] program look very different to some officials charged with tracking terrorism in the United States. More than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials, including some in the small circle who knew of the secret program and how it played out at the F.B.I., said the torrent of tips led them to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources and diverted agents from counterterrorism work they viewed as more productive.
Here we find that investigations involve actual work:
“We’d chase a number, find it’s a schoolteacher with no indication they’ve ever been involved in international terrorism – case closed,” said one former F.B.I. official, who was aware of the program and the data it generated for the bureau. “After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration.”
Inter-agency cooperation? Information sharing? Ha!
The differing views of the value of the N.S.A.’s foray into intelligence-gathering in the United States may reflect both bureaucratic rivalry and a culture clash. The N.S.A., an intelligence agency, routinely collects huge amounts of data from across the globe that may yield only tiny nuggets of useful information; the F.B.I., while charged with fighting terrorism, retains the traditions of a law enforcement agency more focused on solving crimes.
The long silent Bobby Ray brings the slap-down:
“It isn’t at all surprising to me that people not accustomed to doing this would say, ‘Boy, this is an awful lot of work to get a tiny bit of information,’ ” said Adm. Bobby R. Inman, a former N.S.A. director. “But the rejoinder to that is, Have you got anything better?”
And then the leakers invoke the universal caveat:
Several of the law enforcement officials acknowledged that they might not know of arrests or intelligence activities overseas that grew out of the domestic spying program. And because the program was a closely guarded secret, its role in specific cases may have been disguised or hidden even from key investigators.
People wonder why the FBI can’t get their act together with regards to the intelligence business . . . I wonder why:
Still, the comments on the N.S.A. program from the law enforcement and counterterrorism officials, many of them high level, are the first indication that the program was viewed with skepticism by key figures at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the agency responsible for disrupting plots and investigating terrorism on American soil.
Then again, you can’t expect criminal chasers to understand the rather ambiguous world that is signals collection:
F.B.I. field agents, who were not told of the domestic surveillance programs, complained that they often were given no information about why names or numbers had come under suspicion. A former senior prosecutor who was familiar with the eavesdropping programs said intelligence officials turning over the tips “would always say that we had information whose source we can’t share, but it indicates that this person has been communicating with a suspected Qaeda operative.” He said, “I would always wonder, what does ‘suspected’ mean?”
Oddly enough, I used to ask that same question. Never did get an answer, the unspoken conclusion was “guilt by association,” which frankly didn’t bother me all that much. Granted, I didn’t have to schlep around hell’s half acre chasing down questionable leads in a crappy bu-car, but sorting through terabytes comes with its own headaches.
Were we able to wind the clock back a more effective approach would have been to sit down a cadre of properly cleared Special Agents, have them briefed by the computer nerds, and then march forward in a smart and forthright manner. When both sides know where the other is coming from, things run a lot more smoothly; given the two diametrically opposed cultures tossing data points over a wall should have been seen as a pending disaster.
Of course the article also makes it clear that there is no small amount of distrust amongst those who operate domestically with the scary powerful NSA (note to journalists: when NSA is in the news daily, they cease to be “super secret”). This lack of trust (on both sides) is going to plague our national security until someone actually manages to bring about some real reforms. The fact of the matter is that the drive to “beat” your sister agency across town is at least as strong as the drive to beat the adversary. On particularly bad days I used to think that the drive to win political/budgetary capital at the expense of your peers was STRONGER (and often I was right).
More at the Weekly Standard blog.