Monday, February 06, 2006

WaPo tries to discredit the Terrorist Surveillance Program as having yielded few suspects

Well I think this is the point where you have to ask how many solid leads have to result from the information intercept program for the WaPo to consider it valid. At one point the WaPo suggests that the standard ought to be "right for one out of every two guys at least" which is completely unreasonable.

Fewer than 10 U.S. citizens or residents a year, according to an authoritative account, have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well. That step still requires a warrant from a federal judge, for which the government must supply evidence of probable cause.

So NSA wiretaps yielded enough promise maybe 30 or 35 times in the past four and a half years since 9/11 to take the info to the courts to get domestic wiretaps for the rest of the suspects calls and emails. 30 or 35 judge approved solid terrorist leads. Those 30 or 35 leads could prove to be crucial. Remember, there were only nineteen 9/11 terrorists. And if they don't expose actual terrorist cells, then they can expose auxillary help: fund raisers, accountants, recruiters, etc. How many of these leads were to people residing here in the US, how many resulted in arrested or dead terrorists, and how many perfectly legal investigations have been compromised by the NYT and now the WaPo continually exposing the program?

The scale of warrantless surveillance, and the high proportion of bystanders swept in, sheds new light on Bush's circumvention of the courts. National security lawyers, in and out of government, said the washout rate raised fresh doubts about the program's lawfulness under the Fourth Amendment, because a search cannot be judged "reasonable" if it is based on evidence that experience shows to be unreliable. Other officials said the disclosures might shift the terms of public debate, altering perceptions about the balance between privacy lost and security gained.

Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the nation's second-ranking intelligence officer, acknowledged in a news briefing last month that eavesdroppers "have to go down some blind alleys to find the tips that pay off." Other officials, nearly all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to discuss the program, said the prevalence of false leads is especially pronounced when U.S. citizens or residents are surveilled. No intelligence agency, they said, believes that "terrorist . . . operatives inside our country," as Bush described the surveillance targets, number anywhere near the thousands who have been subject to eavesdropping.

The bulk of intelligence work is data analysis, so you could liken the process to searching for a needle in a haystack; you've got to sift through a lot of crap to find the few gems of information that turn into leads. PowerLine uses another, more familiar example of legal privacy intrusion that no one questions.

[T]he paper's discussion of the Fourth Amendment is ill-informed. Many, many searches are conducted without warrants, and without probable cause. To take just one familiar example, every time I board an airplane, my luggage is searched. This is done without a warrant, and the government lacks probable cause to believe that I am carrying a weapon. Nevertheless, searching my luggage is constitutional because it satisfies the standard of the Fourth Amendment: it is reasonable. Likewise, the NSA's data mining program, as described by the Post, is reasonable because 1) catching terrorists operating inside the U.S. is absolutely vital to our security, and 2) the program is likely to turn up significant leads to such terrorists.

If this, or any other, NSA program is reasonable, it is constitutional under the Fourth Amendment; if it is constitutional under the Fourth Amendment, it is within the President's authority as Commander in Chief to order it without recourse to Congress or the courts.

[...] The court went on to say that the "essence" of these cases is "that searches conducted as part of a general regulatory scheme in furtherance of an administrative purpose, rather than as part of a criminal investigation to secure evidence of a crime, may be permissible under the Fourth Amendment though not supported by a showing of probable cause directed to a particular place or person to be searched." The "administrative purpose," in Davis, was "to prevent the carrying of weapons and explosives aboard aircraft, and thereby to prevent hijackings." The court concluded, "To pass constitutional muster, an administrative search must meet the Fourth Amendment's standard of reasonableness."

Similarly, the interception and computer processing of vast numbers of international communications can be characterized as an "administrative search" which, like airport screening, is directed toward identifying terrorists and thereby preventing terrorist attacks inside the U.S. If TSA employees can look through your underwear without probable cause and without a warrant on the one in a million chance that you might be a terrorist, why can't electronic equipment intercept and analyze your international phone calls for the same reason?
Now that's an interesting point that I'd not yet heard made. By what authority does TSA get to legally search my luggage whether it's for weapons, drugs or any other illegal substances? Aren't they invading my privacy? Infringing on my civil liberties? I'd rather they do that than take my chances on a plane that they let people bring whatever the hell they want on board.

The article goes on to confirm the bulk of work is done by computer and classified it as "data mining." To help describe the process:

One method in use, the NSF report said, is "link analysis." It takes an established starting point -- such as a terrorist just captured or killed -- and looks for associated people, places, things and events. Those links can be far more tenuous than they initially appear.

In an unclassified report for the Pentagon's since-abandoned Total Information Awareness program, consultant Mary DeRosa showed how "degrees of separation" among the Sept. 11 conspirators concealed the significance of clues that linked them.

Khalid Almihdhar, one of the hijackers, was on a government watch list for terrorists and thus a known suspect. Mohamed Atta, another hijacker, was linked to Almihdhar by one degree of separation because he used the same contact address when booking his flight. Wail M. Alshehri, another hijacker, was linked by two degrees of separation because he shared a telephone number with Atta. Satam M.A. Al Suqami, still another hijacker, shared a post office box with Alshehri and, therefore, had three degrees of separation from the original suspect.

Those are very thin connections that normally only get exposed after a crime is commited. So if we want to combat terrorism by strictly reacting to terrorist attacks, investigating them only after they occur and hundreds or thousands of people have died, then we don't need the NSA program. But if we want to expose these kinds of leads before attacks happen and actually try to prevent attacks and save lives, we need the help of all this information. What would someone say if we had intercepted calls from terrorists discussing a major attack on US soil, but didn't have the manpower to take the raw data to the next level of an investigation? Or we could be in the position the 9/11 committee found us in; the information was out there, we just weren't looking for it. We've got computers to do a lot of the dot connecting for us but at some point human eyes need to look at the info. So is the program worth it?

This kind of analysis can predict with results "a hell of a lot better than chance" the likelihood that the speakers are trying to conceal their true meaning, according to James W. Pennebaker, who chairs the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Frankly, we'll probably be wrong 99 percent of the time," he said, "but 1 percent is far better than 1 in 100 million times if you were just guessing at random. And this is where the culture has to make some decisions."

I'll take those odds. How about you?