NSA's data gathering is just part of a larger problem

William Walker /


Published Jun 14, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

So — the Patriot Act is now haunting us with FISA courts approving classified communications monitoring. And NSA is almost certainly doing other things that ordinary citizens won’t like when they’re discovered. What did the right wing expect when they dramatically enlarged the operational horizons of the FBI, CIA, NSA and other alphabet-soup agencies? Having spent a few years with an obscure Army organization operating as a wholly-owned subsidiary of NSA, I have no doubt that whatever is revealed to the public is only a small fraction of the data being gathered — paranoia in government is not pretty.

As citizens we have to decide on how much security monitoring is enough. Is there a provable case that this monitoring is useful? Surely the congressional committees involved in national security (with high enough clearances to see the entire picture) can judge whether the level to which we’ve risen (fallen?) is effective, although their current inability to get anything significant done at all may still leave us with a partisan shouting match, yielding much more heat than light.

But let’s assume that they’ve used these capabilities effectively, and have, in fact, uncovered terrorist plots that were stopped before damage was done. If we want that to continue, then we should be pleased that the Patriot Act has done its job. If they haven’t turned up much useful intelligence, their scope should be limited. But we shouldn’t forget that the Patriot Act had strong support in W’s day, and many of us went along with that. Perhaps this was “Our Bad” as well as Congress’s.

We should also realize that, most of the time, classified communications intelligence methods and products are data we don’t want the bad guys to get. Not only would it tell them what we know, but would tell them which of their communications links are compromised, leading them to develop new methods. OBL wasn’t completely off the Net and using snail mail via courier for his amusement — it made him very hard to find. So don’t expect to see cathartic true confessions from these agencies — they will try very hard to keep whatever seems to be working highly classified, arguably for good reasons.

Should anything be done about the leaker, and leaking in general? Besides prosecuting him to the extent of the law, it will likely take the form of much tighter controls on who sees what, particularly among the civilian contractors. I doubt that most of them were subjected to six months of background investigation plus fluttering on a polygraph as I was prior to receiving my Top Secret/Crypto clearance in 1960. Some of these precautions will probably be reinstated in intelligence analyst recruiting.

But it occurs to me that much of this is window dressing around the big picture that frames the question: Can we stop enough plots and drone-kill enough of the terrorists’ leadership to make the U.S. and its friends truly secure? I am beginning to doubt it. It appears that killing terrorists to eliminate the threat they pose is much like attempting to eliminate starfish by catching them and cutting their legs off. Each leg of a starfish (if a bit of the central body is included in the part that’s cut off) carries enough information to grow another complete starfish. Isn’t that special? It feels that this is what we’re doing with the Taliban/Al-Qaida/other loonies, which doesn’t make much sense. So, despite the uproar caused by recent surveillance revelations, I’m far more interested in whether our long-term national strategy on terrorism is intended to take us to some stabilized condition over the long-term or if we intend to simply continue “cutting up starfish,” bumbling our way through more decades of pseudo-religious war.