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Targeting Needles, or Adding More Hay?

November 13, 2013 in Economics

By John Mueller

John Mueller

Recently, US Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that America’s National Security Agency (NSA) had perhaps “reached too far” in its massive collection of communications data. That is a monumental understatement. From the start of America’s “war on terror”, overreach has been the norm. Recall former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani: “anybody, any one of these security experts, including myself, would have told you on September 11, 2001, we’re looking at dozens and dozens and multi-years of attacks like this.”

The NSA has institutionalized alarmist thinking and is remarkably resistant to counter-information.”

The fears and concerns were plausible extrapolations from the facts then at hand. However, that every “security expert” should hold such erroneous views is fundamentally absurd. It was also an entirely plausible extrapolation from facts then at hand that 9/11 could prove to be an aberration rather than a harbinger. Yet it appears that no one in authority could even imagine that proposition to be true, even though it could have been taken to fit the available information fully as well as the passionately embraced alarmist perspective.

The “dozens and dozens” of 9/11 attacks never happened, of course, and the thousands of trained al-Qaeda operatives intelligence agencies imagined to exist in the US at the time turned out to be zero or exceedingly close to it. Nonetheless, alarmist thinking from the early days has been internalised and institutionalized, and it has proved to be notably resistant to counter-information. As anthropologist Scott Atran puts it, “Perhaps never in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many.” Central to the process, the NSA has continually expanded its spying efforts, searching for the needle by adding more and more hay.

When asked earlier this year about the NSA’s massive data-gathering programmes, the agency’s head, General Keith Alexander, contended that they were “crucial or critical” in disrupting “dozens” of terrorism plots. He then provided Congress with a list of 54 such cases. Although the list (unsurprisingly) is classified, Senator Patrick Leahy says that the notion that these cases represent disrupted plots is “plainly wrong”. Indeed, “they weren’t all plots and they weren’t all thwarted.”

When operatives at the NSA, sorting through their data collections, uncover leads, they are virtually never productive. At the FBI, reports journalist Garrett Graff, the NSA tips are often called “Pizza Hut” leads because, …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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