American spies don't need new powers to catch terrorists, they just have to start doing their jobs


#1

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#2

The article is an exercise in hindsight bias.


#3

If that’s true, then the entire NSA TIA programme is an futile exercise in trying to eliminate hindsight bias.


#4

It certainly is. Also there is some misleading use of language to “emphasise” the authors points.

This quote in particular:

all we can say with certainty is that it is an indisputable fact that the proper sharing of intelligence by the CIA with other agencies about al-Mihdhar may well have derailed the 9/11 plot
reminds me of this.

All of this said. I agree with the overall premise. More information gathering isn’t the answer; but it does seem a pity the author hasn’t pointed out that more information actually makes the job of working out which information is pertinent more difficult. Just like the TSA, if everyone is looking for toothpaste and underwear bombs, they’ll miss the real threats that are smuggled through.


#5

That’s certainly possible, but it’s also possible that having the information the NSA is now gatheringwould have resulted in more & better leads that actually could have been used to prevent the attacks. Just because the dots look connectable only in hindsight doesn’t mean that more dots wouldn’t have helped.

I think the real question remains whether or not the tradeoff between liberty and security is worth it. For me the answer is no, but politicians and voters seem to feel otherwise.


#6

It is just as likely that more dots would simply be more noise, and real threats could be even more likely to be missed.


#7

That was a pretty poor sentence - but the overall thesis is, I think right. The technicians at NSA are trying to automate the job of spy, and it’s not going very well. How many terrorists have they caught (not counting peaceful protestors)?


#8

Bergen was on to Osama Bin Laden long before 9/11. The man’s advice bears heeding.


#9

Before we know whether the answers to “how many X have they Y” is meaningful, we need to know what the baseline was… which is going to be hard to get, especially if you want it in the form of “before or after you started doing this thing you haven’t admitted you’re doing and the other you won’t say when you started doing”.

I still say the NSA flap is a brilliant disinformation campaign, distracting us onto hypotheticals and irrelevancies when we should be fixing/dismantling DHS, shutting down Gitmo, fixing the TSA, and breaking the whole terrorized mindset.


#10

Yup. The correct response to “we don’t know what to do with all this information we already have” is NOT “therefore we need ALL TEH DATAS!!”


#11

Oh I agree with the premise (as stated above) it’s just a pity the thesis is poorly written, relying on hindsight bias and misleading language rather than strong logical arguments. It is not hard to see that too much information makes it very hard to figure out what information is actually useful; this is precisely why researchers use simplified models and limiting parameters to test hypotheses after all. Imagining that gathering every single scrap of information possible to somehow make intelligence gathering easier is silly.


#12

I reckon it’s time for a Team America sequel, with a Snowden theme and a Dr Strangelove flavour.

Make that two sequels; the other one can be about the fucking fat cats running off with everything.

Team America can help the banks repossess homes they don’t own any of, smash through kids’ bedroom windows to stop them using a copyrighted track on a Youtube video, give brown people a hard time at airports and border crossings, help the rich steal everybody’s pensions and put teachers, firemen etc out of work, and like that.


#13

I don’t think having spies do the jobs they should be doing is productive most of the time. Generally it’s only to advance the nation’s interests, which generally mean some fat cat’s interests.

Of course, I operate off the ridiculous notion that human behavior is as simple as every person is always doing what they think is “good”, as corruptible as the notion might be for psychopathic warlords and the like.


#14

The problem with that is that it would, at least partially, have to be a satire of unregulated capitalism, and Trey Parker, being a registered member of the Libertarian Party, probably couldn’t approach unregulated capitalism with a critical enough eye to actually be funny.

Matt Stone maybe, but I dunno, given what’s appeared in recent South Park, both of them seem to have turned into lazy, middle-of-the-road, only-question-the-status-quo-when-it-doesn’t-inconvenience-white-guys assholes, their fame has kind of ruined their senses of humor.

Much as they like to mock Family Guy and its team for selling out, they’re really no better. In fact, Seth McFarlane’s a little better than them simple by virtue of never having NOT been a sell-out who’s only offensive when it’s not offending people who look like him.


#15

Nah, it’s all part and parcel of the same thing. The whole terrorism thing is to get you looking outside for threats while a police state is built inside, and the NSA is fully part of that.

Figure it this way: they are indeed collecting more information than they can process to prevent “terrorism”, but that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. If they actually halt an attack, that’s a propaganda coup, but, if they don’t, that’s also a propaganda coup:

“You need to give us a free hand and sufficient budget to prevent things like this from happening again.”

Of course, they screwed up at various points with info and tips they did receive because of bureaucratic snafus, but countering terrorism isn’t their main purpose. If it was, adding further layers of bureaucracy (as happened after 9/11) would be a non-starter.

However, querying the databases for info on someone who really is of interest should be a piece of cake:

“That case is coming up in the Second Circuit. Got a handle on the judge?”

“Give me a sec…”

In other words, they’re Hoovering all this info for the same reasons J. Edgar Hoovered it. Call me cynical, maybe, but I suspect there are reasons why your judiciary has been fairly consistently rolling over and playing dead on Fourth Amendment challenges (and very few have to do with the merits of the cases). This is the big danger the NSA’s programmes pose to your country, and I don’t think you have much hope of rolling back the DHS, TSA and so forth until you rein in your spooks.


#16

I personally don’t want to shit on the FBI/CIA/NSA for missing stuff. Looking back in hindsight and saying “but you got a tip from X!” is pointless if they got 1000 other tips in that same week. That isn’t to suggest that they shouldn’t be going back and figuring out how to sift information they already have out of the noise, but I can pretty happily accept failure without thinking it is due to gross negligence.

The real problem is the mindset that demands we catch everything at all costs; that sort of stupidity is how we get multiple administrations from both parties shredding the constitution for the NSA and DHS to use as toilet paper. We can’t catch everything, so grow the fuck up and accept that if you live inside a major US city or fly a lot, there is an infinitesimally small chance that instead of dying of heart disease, cancer, or an aging illness like everyone else, you might get eaten by a shark, struck by lightening, choke on your own food, get killed by your bathtub, and yes, you might get killed by a terrorist. If you don’t live in a major US city or fly a lot, please just fuck off and die before you babble about terrorist. No one gives a shit about your 'burb, least of all the “scary” terrorist. All of that money we piss away on defense could have been dumped into actually scary things, like cancer or heart disease.

Simply put, we need to downgrade “terrorist” (a stupid name for ideology motivated violence if there ever was one) to where it actually belongs on the list of things you worry about. It deserves to sit roughly around “choking on my own food” and “falling in the bathtub and dying”. Both of those kill vastly more Americans each year than terrorist.

It isn’t that we need to catch every single terrorist. We can’t. There are 7 billion people in the world and some of them are always going to want to kill you. What we need is to just not give a shit, or at least give only as many shits as is proportional to the threat, which is close to zero. The only real damage terrorism does in the grand scheme of things is our responding stupidly to it. You can all but eliminate the damage terrorism does by simply not responding. Personally, I wish politicians had the guts to call out people who babble incoherently about the “scary terrorist” as the fucking cowards that they are.

The price of liberty is that you accept a 1 in a few million chance that a terrorist might kill you instead of dying of diabetes and cancer like every other fat fucking American. No one is asking Americans to storm a beachhead or pick up a gun, just stop being such fucking cowards and electing politicians who are cowardly slim.


#17

Maybe the NSA Talking Point should be more along the lines of, “We may not be able to prevent the next 9/11, but we may be able to help disrupt any follow up attacks by the same organisation.”


#18

I remember a nova that dug into this sort of hindsight. The conclusion was that lack of interagency communication was a big part of the problem and that the CIA, FBI, and NSA could not legally share information. I think it was called investigating 9/11.


#19

“Like” doesn’t do it. “Hell yes.”

Also, publicly referring to them as “terrorist” gives the assholes more dignity than they deserve; it accepts that they think they have justification. “Mass murderer” or “mad bomber” would be the proper way to report on them.


#20

Interesting how many people think that these over reaching NSA/FBI/CIA dragnets have something to do with terrorism.
They are spying on businesses, political parties, activists, reporters, windows users, environmentalists, and people like you and me. They are putting people in secret prisons without trail or oversight. They take away passports of American citizens unless they ‘join’ them in becoming spies themselves. The insert agent provocateurs in peaceful demonstrations to quell political dissent.
There seems to be an agenda here, but counter-terrorism isn’t it.