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Over the last several years we have been fortunate enough to not have been subjected to another September 11th-scale attack. Further more, we have not had the misfortune of suffering anything on a smaller scale like the attacks in London or Madrid. There are a number of potential reasons why we are able live in this relative state of calm. Chief among those reasons is the more aggressive and creative application of intelligence tools and methods undertaken since we were attacked.

Post September 11th the government has among other things; initiated armed combat with those who attacked us and those who supported those who attacked us; began analyzing foreign and domestic telephone number data; searched for and monitored telephone connections between terrorists and suspect individuals located in the US; created and filled a unified database of threatening events and people who are targeting government facilities and personnel; identified, investigated, indicted, tried, and convicted (or obtained plea bargains) of numerous foreign and domestic terrorists and wannabes. All of this has been done without any evidence that the actual privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, or any other liberties afforded US citizens has been affected.

There are those who are quick to disparage the efforts of our security apparatus and the political majority that manages it as warmongering and heavy-handed big-brotherism. Characterizing these efforts as illegal and infringing on the rights of the citizenry is a good way to get points from the angry base. To be sure, these projects have not been flaw-free; TSA no-fly-list follies being among the most well-known examples. However, when complaints by government watchdogs have been raised, and mistakes noted, problems have been fixed.

So if current intelligence and security efforts are successful but perhaps too daring, what would the political minority do differently if they were in charge?

Searching through Democratic political and policy sites I find no obvious links to an alternative national security or homeland security strategy. I do note that one of the issues the DNC is concerned about is “Keeping Americans Safe at Home” and they tout their leadership in creating the Department of Homeland Security. I’m not sure that I would extol the virtues of that position given the general dysfunction of that particular agency, but it’s their Web site.

Lacking a single document that captures their stance on national and homeland security, we are left to piece together what their strategy would be based on the positions they take relative to the current strategy.

Their stance on the NSA’s monitoring and analysis efforts is perfectly clear: they are not, not against it. To be more precise they are for it as long as it is kept secret; they are against it after the existence of the programs becomes public knowledge. Imagine: all those lawyers with (D) after their names on Congressional intelligence oversight committees yet not one felt compelled to blow a whistle.

Opponents of the NSA programs claim that terrorists would not be so stupid as to use phones or other means of communications that could be traced. Were our prisons not filled to overflowing with criminal masterminds I could see the wisdom of the bad-guys-aren’t-stupid argument. As it is I don’t think Jose Padilla, Ali Saleh al-Marri, or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed are on the short list for Mensa. Sami al-Arian may have earned a Ph.D. but he wasn’t so clever that the government wasn’t able to compile several years worth of evidence against him.

The idea that American’s are outraged over an egregious violation of personal privacy is an equally unconvincing argument. Experiments, surveys and everyday practice indicate that Americans could care less about their privacy and personal information. The first piece of paper they throw away when they get their phone, cable or credit card bill is the privacy policy; they’ll give up personal data if you tell them they can save five bucks on their grocery bill or get a free latté every week. Throw NSA data mining into the mix and two-thirds of American’s surveyed still couldn’t be bothered to care.

The strategy to fight terrorists “over there” so that we do not have to fight them here in the homeland is admirable, but not without flaws. Still, despite the growing body of documentary evidence to support claims that Iraqi WMD efforts were not exactly pigments in Saddam’s colorful imagination and that terrorists were not unknown in Iraq prior to the war, fighting overseas is characterized as a distraction from the real battle. Who is worth fighting remains undefined. 

Securing the nation means in part securing our borders and the people therein. President Bush is advocating that current border security efforts be supplemented by the National Guard, calling for an end of catch-and-release, and proposing a means by which we can identify exactly who we are letting into the country. On the other side of the political fence we have people who think documentation is the next poll tax, who consider deportations impractical – multiple precedence notwithstanding – and of course the California Senate (two-thirds Democrat) which passed a resolution supporting the May 1st “Day Without (Illegal) Immigrants.”

The alternative to the unobtrusive and technical approach to the intelligence operations being carried out today is the invasive and physical approach. This would be the “Your papers please.” world that some would have us believe is a goal of the current administration. I would cede the point were federal funding for police and other first responders not being cut. Still, for argument sake let’s assume the current minority party was in the majority and held the White House during 9/11 and they opted to pursue the more-cops approach. Let’s say they sought to triple the number of police in major metro areas across the country; a goal that might have been obtainable by mid-2003. After nearly two years of waiting for help to arrive we now have tens of thousands of new rookie beat cops with no anti-terrorism experience. Three times the number of inexperienced quasi-intelligence officers means three times the number of questionable reports to evaluate; talk about adding hay to an impossibly large stack. Contrast this with the current strategy which is bringing the data to the experts. Perhaps not a perfect approach, but we didn’t have to wait long for implementation and it is an approach that has contributed to over four years of attack-free living.

To summarize: In a time of war the minority would gladly and quietly “spy on Americans” but they would not secure our borders or fight terrorists and the regimes that support them. One is left to wonder: if they were not going to use all that data to ferret out and destroy our enemies, what would they be doing with it?

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.