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King for a Day

You may not like the wording of the phrase “global war on terror” or even the idea that we can fight and win a war against a methodology. Nevertheless, we find ourselves engaged in a conflict with an adversary that has worldwide ambitions and cannot be pinned down to any geographic location a’la our adversaries from the good old days (this side of iron curtain good – that side of iron curtain bad).

Given that our enemies are potentially everywhere and they don’t wear fur hats and talk like Boris and Natasha, it stands to reason that the war against this enemy is and will continue to be a primarily intelligence-driven effort. Back in the day we knew where the bad guys were billeted; the problem was putting enough munitions on target. Today we have precision-guided munitions but you cannot drop such munitions on a terrorist hide-out without first knowing where the hideout is.

Developing meaningful and actionable intelligence requires information, which in turn is built up by collecting a lot of data. I hear tell that we are in the information age, so getting our hands on a lot of data should be fairly easy. That we have the technical capability to do so is apparently a problem for those who think that our fight against terrorism should be based on a strategy that is information free.

Take the open source, data mining effort that was Able Danger. It sorted through vast amounts of completely unclassified, publicly available data and reportedly identified a number of the 9/11 hijackers (before 9/11) as well as the threat to the USS Cole. The program was reportedly shut down and its data deleted because of (unwarranted) fears that “US Persons” data had been viewed/used.

More recently phone numbers and email addresses obtained from captured terrorist phones and computers were used to seed NSA efforts to identify potential terrorists or their supporters in the US. This has sparked fears that the NSA is “spying on Americans” though based on all accounts the only people actually subjected to any scrutiny had some kind of connection (tenuous as it may have been) to an actual bad guy.

Commentary and opinion from those who think that we shouldn’t be taking advantage of information age tools in the information age – those not suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome – primarily concern themselves with potential violations of privacy rights, and view the use of both public and private information as a harbinger of a return to the bad old days of COINTELPRO and the Nixon Enemies List. They use words like “surveillance” and “spying” when in fact an almost infinitesimal number of Americans are actually being “surveilled” while the vast majority of us are merely being scanned, filtered, and discarded. When asked 64% of Americans could apparently care less.

I’m no lawyer, but there seems to be ample support for the steps taken by the current administration, though I accept that this is a situation that may have to be settled in court. Let’s assume that a legal challenge is mounted and won? My question to the victors is: What would you have us do now? Now that you’ve made telemarketers more aware than US intelligence, are you going to give our spies and agents a pass the next time we’re attacked? Should we sit around waiting for walk-ins to show up, watch al-Jazeera for tips, or maybe send agents out door-to-door to inquire about shady individuals (or is even that too intrusive)?

I’ve read a lot of angst-filled columns over what we should not be doing, but on what we should be doing there is an eerie silence. I’d be happy to engage in a dialog with anyone who thinks what we’ve been doing so far is bad and who has some meaningful ideas on how we might accomplish the same goals without suffering real or perceived violations of the law.

Listen . . . that’s the sound of me holding my breath . . .

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.