Tag Archives: William Arkin

Today, We Get Info Without Julian Assange

Dana Priest and William M. Arkin at WaPo

Nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators.

The system, by far the largest and most technologically sophisticated in the nation’s history, collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The government’s goal is to have every state and local law enforcement agency in the country feed information to Washington to buttress the work of the FBI, which is in charge of terrorism investigations in the United States.

Other democracies – Britain and Israel, to name two – are well acquainted with such domestic security measures. But for the United States, the sum of these new activities represents a new level of governmental scrutiny.

This localized intelligence apparatus is part of a larger Top Secret America created since the attacks. In July, The Washington Post described an alternative geography of the United States, one that has grown so large, unwieldy and secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs or how many programs exist within it.

Today’s story, along with related material on The Post’s Web site, examines how Top Secret America plays out at the local level. It describes a web of 4,058 federal, state and local organizations, each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions. At least 935 of these organizations have been created since the 2001 attacks or became involved in counterterrorism for the first time after 9/11.

(Search our database for your state to find a detailed profile of counterterrorism efforts in your community.)

Glenn Greenwald:

In The Washington Post today, Dana Priest and William Arkin continue their “Top Secret America” series by describing how America’s vast and growing Surveillance State now encompasses state and local law enforcement agencies, collecting and storing always-growing amounts of information about even the most innocuous activities undertaken by citizens suspected of no wrongdoing.  As was true of the first several installments of their “Top Secret America,” there aren’t any particularly new revelations for those paying attention to such matters, but the picture it paints — and the fact that it is presented in an establishment organ such as The Washington Post — is nonetheless valuable.

Today, the Post reporters document how surveillance and enforcement methods pioneered in America’s foreign wars and occupations are being rapidly imported into domestic surveillance (wireless fingerprint scanners, military-grade infrared cameras, biometric face scanners, drones on the border).  In sum:

The special operations units deployed overseas to kill the al-Qaeda leadership drove technological advances that are now expanding in use across the United States. On the front lines, those advances allowed the rapid fusing of biometric identification, captured computer records and cellphone numbers so troops could launch the next surprise raid. Here at home, it’s the DHS that is enamored with collecting photos, video images and other personal information about U.S. residents in the hopes of teasing out terrorists.

Meanwhile, the Obama Department of Homeland Security has rapidly expanded the scope and invasiveness of domestic surveillance programs — justified, needless to say, in the name of Terrorism:

[DHS Secretary Janet] Napolitano has taken her “See Something, Say Something” campaign far beyond the traffic signs that ask drivers coming into the nation’s capital for “Terror Tips” and to “Report Suspicious Activity.”

She recently enlisted the help of Wal-Mart, Amtrak, major sports leagues, hotel chains and metro riders. In her speeches, she compares the undertaking to the Cold War fight against communists.

“This represents a shift for our country,” she told New York City police officers and firefighters on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary this fall. “In a sense, this harkens back to when we drew on the tradition of civil defense and preparedness that predated today’s concerns.”

The results are predictable.  Huge amounts of post/9-11 anti-Terrorism money flooded state and local agencies that confront virtually no Terrorism threats, and they thus use these funds to purchase technologies — bought from the private-sector industry that controls and operates government surveillance programs — for vastly increased monitoring and file-keeping on ordinary citizens suspected of no wrongdoing.  The always-increasing cooperation between federal, state and local agencies — and among and within federal agencies — has spawned massive data bases of information containing the activities of millions of American citizens.  “There are 96 million sets of fingerprints” in the FBI’s data base, the Post reports.  Moreover, the FBI uses its “suspicious activities record” program (SAR) to collect and store endless amounts of information about innocent Americans:

At the same time that the FBI is expanding its West Virginia database, it is building a vast repository controlled by people who work in a top-secret vault on the fourth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington. This one stores the profiles of tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents who are not accused of any crime. What they have done is appear to be acting suspiciously to a town sheriff, a traffic cop or even a neighbor.

To get a sense for what kind of information ends up being stored — based on the most innocuous conduct — read this page from their article describing Suspicious Activity Report No3821.  Even the FBI admits the huge waste all of this is — “‘Ninety-nine percent doesn’t pan out or lead to anything’ said Richard Lambert Jr., the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Knoxville office” — but, as history conclusively proves, data collected on citizens will be put to some use even if it reveals no criminality.

Ed Morrissey:

Again, none of this is particularly surprising.  Battlefield technologies almost always “migrate” to use at home, depending on its application and the cost.  The city of LA had halftracks used in combating drug trafficking more than two decades ago, for one example, parodied in the movie Die Hard.  The FBI collects data from many people and always has, which is one of the reasons why releasing the raw FBI files on political figures to the Clinton White House was such an egregious act.  What they do with the data is, of course, the greater consideration.  Picking the wrong imams isn’t just limited to “some law enforcement agencies,” as the Pentagon’s relationship with Anwar al-Awlaki demonstrated.  The problem of government agencies acting with less than optimal efficiency at working across boundaries is hardly new, either.

It’s still valuable to have journalists dig into these problems on a regular basis so that we can demand better performance from security groups and Congress, rather than just shrug at inefficiency, waste, and abuses of power.  But Liz Goodwin’s “5 most surprising revelations” from the WaPo entry today at Yahoo read as though Goodwin has never before reviewed governmental performance:

  1. The FBI has 161,948 suspicious activity files on “tens of thousands” of Americans – The FBI set up hotlines and websites for tips on terrorism immediately after 9/11.  Each tip presumably opens up a file.  In nine years, the effort has produced less than 20,000 tips per year and (assuming the maximum range of tens of thousands) about 10,000 suspects a year.  That doesn’t seem very surprising to me.  That they haven’t arrested anywhere near that many people is a function of what an investigation produces.  Maintaining files on dead probes doesn’t mean anything, unless they get leaked.
  2. DHS has no idea how much it’s spending on liaison efforts to local agencies – I’d guess that many agencies don’t really know how much they spend on any one aspect of their operations.  DHS is a huge federal agency, employing 216,000 people with an overall budget of about $52 billion with varied and overlapping jurisdictions.
  3. Local officials in these “fusion centers” get little or no training – Surprise!  Government bureaucracies are notoriously inefficient.  That’s why it’s a good idea to limit them to tasks that only government can and should do — although it’s worth pointing out that this happens to be one of those tasks.
  4. Local agencies are “left without guidance” from DHS – This is really the same thing as #3, isn’t it, or at least the same root problem?   She points out that among those groups suspected of potential terrorist activity by state and local authorities were Tea Party activists, historically black colleges, and a group that campaigned for human rights and bike lanes.  Again, that might have been based on tips received and followed up by the agencies, but also again, it’s part of a lack of competence and accountability endemic in bureaucracies.
  5. State and local agencies are taking counterterrorist funding and using it to support regular law-enforcement efforts instead – Who couldn’t have seen that coming?  These funds are usually given in bloc grants, which means the recipient can use the money for whatever purpose they desire.  All they need is a tenuous link to the original purpose of the funds to make it pass muster, and it’s certainly arguable that by enforcing the state and local law more vigorously, local law enforcement might be able to flush out terrorists.  However, this is a problem because it makes local law enforcement dependent on federal funding, which is a bad idea in principle.  Communities should pay for their own law enforcement needs and let the feds concentrate on actual federal crimes.

These aren’t surprises at all.  They are, however, issues that need to be corrected — and it appears that the first item on correction should be a rethink of DHS and its top-heavy bureaucracy.

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

Military technology has a tendency to trickle down to civilian applications, as evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this story on the internet that Darpa helped create. Usually that takes time, but police departments across the country are fielding tools that the military developed to keep tabs on insurgents are now in place to see if you’ve got any outstanding arrest warrants. That’s what the Washington Post found for the latest installment of its series on the expanding surveillance state: Arizona’s Maricopa County, for instance, keeps a database sized at “9,000 biometric digital mug shots a month.”

Here’s how the proliferation of biometrics works, as the Post discovers. The Department of Homeland Security wants more data points on potential homegrown terrorists. Through Federal-state law enforcement “fusion centers,” federal grants help finance law enforcement’s acquisition of ID tools like HIIDE, as well as powerful surveillance cameras and sensors. Police incorporate them into their regular law-enforcement duties, picking up information on suspects and using them to cut down on the time it takes to figure out who’s evading arrest.

As the military learned, positive identification depends on having a large data set of known insurgents. Cops and the feds are going just as broad. Fingerprint information from crime records gets sent to a  FBI datafarm in West Virginia, where they “mingle” with prints from detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Military and Homeland Security officials can search through the FBI database for possible connections to terrorists.

It’s unclear if there are minimization procedures in place to void someone’s fingerprints in the datafarm after a distinct period of time, or how serious a crime has to be to merit a bioscan getting sent to West Virginia. And in many cases, the technology at use here just accelerates the speed at which, say, prints from a police station get sent to the FBI, rather than making the difference between inclusion at the datafarm and remaining at the police station. But it certainly looks like there’s not such a lag time between tech developed for a complex insurgency finding applications for crime-fighting at home.

Instapundit:

Luckily, this stuff is only creepy when there’s a Republican President. Otherwise I’d be worried. But as we all know, to worry about this when there’s a Democrat in the White House is merely a sign of the “paranoid strain” in American politics.

Emptywheel at Firedoglake

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“Top Secret America” Burning Up The Tubes

Dana Priest and William Arkin at WaPo:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The investigation’s other findings include:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

These are not academic issues; lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate.

They are also issues that greatly concern some of the people in charge of the nation’s security.

“There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that – not just for the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], but for any individual, for the director of the CIA, for the secretary of defense – is a challenge,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview with The Post last week.

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials – called Super Users – have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.

Andrew Sullivan has a round-up

Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman at Danger Room at Wired:

Figuring out exactly who’s cashing in on the post-9/11 boom in secret programs just got a whole lot easier.

U.S. spy agencies, the State Department and the White House had a collective panic attack Friday over a new Washington Post exposé on the intelligence-industrial complex. Reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin let it drop Monday morning.

It includes a searchable database cataloging what an estimated 854,000 employees and legions of contractors are apparently up to. Users can now to see just how much money these government agencies are spending and where those top secret contractors are located.

Check out the Post’s nine-page list of agencies and contractors involved in air and satellite observations, for instance. No wonder it scares the crap out of official Washington: It’s bound to provoke all sorts of questions — both from taxpayers wondering where their money goes and from U.S. adversaries looking to penetrate America’s spy complex.

But this piece is about much more than dollars. It’s about what used to be called the Garrison State — the impact on society of a praetorian class of war-focused elites. Priest and Arkin call it “Top Secret America,” and it’s so big and grown so fast, that it’s replicated the problem of disconnection within the intelligence agencies that facilitated America’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack.

With too many analysts and too many capabilities documenting too much, with too few filters in place to sort out the useful stuff or discover hidden connections, the information overload has become its own information blackout. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe,” a retired Army three-star general who recently assessed the system tells the reporters.

Julian Sanchez at Cato:

Intel-watchers have been waiting with bated breath for the launch of the Washington Post’s investigative series “Top Secret America,” the first installment of which appeared today, along with a searchable database showing the network of contractors doing top-secret work for the intelligence community. Despite the inevitable breathless warnings that the Post’s reporting would somehow compromise national security, there’s nothing online as yet to justify such fears, as even the Weekly Standard notes: The information was vetted by intel officials before being posted, and a good portion of it was already in the public domain, if not necessarily collated in such a convenient form.  Indeed, writers like Tim Shorrock, author of the invaluable Spies for Hire, have been reporting on the explosion of intelligence contracting for some time now—and in some instances the information you’ll find in Shorrock’s own contractor database is more usefully detailed than what the Post provides. None of this, to be clear, should at all diminish the enormous achievement of Dana Priest and William Arkin here: The real threat of their damning exposé should be to the job security of intelligence officials and contractors.  They paint a portrait of a sprawling intelligence-industrial complex drowning in data they’re unable to effectively process, and choked by redundancy

Gabriel Schoenfeld at The Weekly Standard:

The first installment of the Washington Post blockbuster, “Top Secret America,” by Dana Priest and William Arkin, two years in the making, is finally out today. It paints a surprisingly unsurprising picture of duplication and triplication in the intelligence world.

The story had provoked alarm among officials, and in some conservative quarters, that vital secrets would be spilled. “Is Wash Post harming intelligence work?” asked the Washington Times on Friday.  For its part, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence even put out a preemptive memo:  “We will want to minimize damage caused by unauthorized disclosure of sensitive and classified information. “

[…]

Indeed, it is hard to spot anything particularly damaging in the story. Its massive database and accompanying map of top-secret facilities in the United States, available on the Web, have been compiled from open-source material.

Leaks of highly classified information can pose a serious threat to our security. But in foreign policy reporting, leaks are also the coin of the realm.  Some of them pose no danger at all. Indeed, they are a principal channel by which the public is informed, which is why the  subject is so contentious.  In this particular instance, there does not even appear to have been a leak.  There is nothing top secret about “Top Secret America” (at least in its first installment). In this respect it is a case of false—and very smart—advertising.

Carol Platt Liebau at Townhall:

Priest intends the article to be scary, and to a certain degree, it certainly is. It’s a searing reminder of how much a “big government” is out of the control even of those who purport to run it.   Although the tone of the piece seems to intend the criticism to be directed toward “Top Secret America” (i.e., the post 9/11 security complex) — any thinking person will realize what the nub of the problem is, and that’s this: Government grows — always, always, always — because that’s the nature of government unless citizens are fortunate enough to have leaders who actually care about restraining it.

Peter Huessy at Big Government:

The Washington Post has published massive amounts of secret intelligence material in the interests, they say, of improving US national security. The two authors, Dana Priest and William Arkin, complain about a national security enterprise that has grown by leaps and bounds since 9/11. The reveal in detail the firms working for the US intelligence community including their location, contracts, and work subjects, whether border security, cyber-security or counter proliferation.

There are two common explanations for the story. First, it is juicy story. It has lots of secret information. And for two reporters, pursuing a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, well isn’t this what reporters do? The second explanation: their view is that the national security establishment represented by the $75 billion intelligence community and its network of firms, organizations and contractors is not serving the American people, that it is bloated, redundant and need of serious downsizing. But all, mind you, to make our security better.

There may be a third explanation. It may be they think little if any of this intelligence work is necessary. Nearly a decade ago, on October 12, 2002, William Arkin, the co-author of the article, spoke at the Naval War College. One key part of his talk is nearly identical to the thesis of the Post article.  He said: “More than 30 billion of our tax dollars each year go towards government generated intelligence information. We had, and have, a CIA and an intelligence community that has a fantastic history of failure, that is mostly blind to what is going on in the world, that seems to know nothing and at the same time is so bombarded and overwhelmed with stimuli from its millions of receptors it can hardly sense what is happening.”

Arkin goes on in his 2002 speech to blame America for the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  He says our military prowess forced our adversaries to use attacks against our vulnerable infrastructure, such as airplanes or trains because they could not successfully fight our military. And he says our support for Gulf autocracies and stationing troops there gave cause for the attacks of 9/11. The implied solution is very simple: stop supporting harsh regimes, withdraw our forces from the Gulf and terrorism disappears.

This underlying view of what we are supposedly facing permeates the Post story as well. They describe what they think this vast intelligence enterprise is trying to do: “defeating transnational violent extremists,” “fortify domestic defenses and to launch a global offensive against al-Qaeda,” and find “clues that lead to individuals and groups trying to harm the United States.”

I have one small quibble, however, which is with the “redundancy and waste” argument about multiple agencies doing the same work.  This is a standard argument in favor of rationalization, and it’s not always wrong.  It should be noted, however, that some redundancy is actually a good thing, particularly on an issue like counter-terrorism.

Say a single bureaucracy is tasked with intelligence gathering about threat X.  Let’s say this bureaucracy represents the best of the best of the best — the A-Team.  The A-Team does it’s job and catches 95% of the emergent threats from X.  That’s still 5% that is missed.

Now say you have another independent bureaucracy with a similar remit.  This agency is staffed by different people with their own set of blind spots.  Let’s even stipulate that we’re talking about the B-team here, and they’ll only catch 80% of the emergent threats from X.

If thesr two bureaucracies are working independently — and this is an important if — then the odds that a threat would go unobserved by both bureaucracies is .05*.2 = .01 = 1%.  So, by adding another bureaucracy, even a less competent one, the chances of an undetected threat getting through are cut from 5% to 1%.  That ain’t nothing.

Glenn Greenwald:

What’s most noteworthy about all of this is that the objective endlessly invoked for why we must acquiesce to all of this — National Security — is not only unfulfilled by “Top Secret America,” but actively subverted by it.  During the FISA debate of 2008 — when Democrats and Republicans joined together to legalize the Bush/Cheney warrantless eavesdropping program and vastly expand the NSA’s authority to spy on the communications of Americans without judicial oversight — it was constantly claimed that the Government must have greater domestic surveillance powers in order to Keep Us Safe.  Thus, anyone who opposed the new spying law was accused of excessively valuing privacy and civil liberties at the expense of what, we are always told, matters most:  Staying Safe.

But as I wrote many times back then — often by interviewing and otherwise citing House Intelligence Committee member Rush Holt, who has been making this point repeatedly — the more secret surveillance powers we vest in the Government, the more we allow the unchecked Surveillance State to grow, the more unsafe we become.  That’s because the public-private axis that is the Surveillance State already collects so much information about us, our activities and our communications — so indiscriminately and on such a vast scale — that it cannot possibly detect any actual national security threats.  NSA whistle blower Adrienne Kinne, when exposing NSA eavesdropping abuses, warned of what ABC News described as “the waste of time spent listening to innocent Americans, instead of looking for the terrorist needle in the haystack.”  As Kinne put it:

By casting the net so wide and continuing to collect on Americans and aid organizations, it’s almost like they’re making the haystack bigger and it’s harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody.  You’re actually hurting our ability to effectively protect our national security.

The Government did not fail to detect the 9/11 attacks because it was unable to collect information relating to the plot.  It did collect exactly that, but because it surveilled so much information, it was incapable of recognizing what it possessed (“connecting the dots”).  Despite that, we have since then continuously expanded the Government’s surveillance powers.  Virtually every time the political class reveals some Scary New Event, it demands and obtains greater spying authorities (and, of course, more and more money).  And each time that happens, its ability to detect actually relevant threats diminishes.  As Priest and Arkin write:

The NSA sorts a fraction of those [1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of daily collected communications] into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.

The article details how ample information regarding alleged Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hassan and attempted Christmas Day bomber Umar Abdulmutallab was collected but simply went unrecognized.  As a result, our vaunted Surveillance State failed to stop the former attack and it was only an alert airplane passenger who thwarted the latter.  So it isn’t that we keep sacrificing our privacy to an always-growing National Security State in exchange for greater security.  The opposite is true:  we keep sacrificing our privacy to the always-growing National Security State in exchange for less security.

Matthew Yglesias:

Beyond this, my main reaction is to think Glenn Greenwald draws too sharp a dichotomy between the view that Priest and Arkin are detailing a story of too much waste and inefficiency and the view that Priest and Arkin are detailing a story of “an out-of-control, privacy-destroying Surveillance State.” The point, as I see it, is that the one necessarily leads to the other. A surveillance state that sucks in everything creates an unmanageable flow of information. Pervasive secrecy makes coordination impossible. The scope and covert nature of the enterprise destroys accountability. In fact, it’s so unaccountable that even the people to whom it’s supposed to be accountable have no idea what’s going on:

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials – called Super Users – have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.

“I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything” was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.

You can’t possibly run an effective organization along these lines, and the idea that pouring even more hazily defined powers to surveil and torture people is going to improve things is daft. The potential for abuses in this system is tremendous, and the odds of overlooking whatever it is that’s important are overwhelming. Meanwhile, though it’s hardly the key point I note that for all the vast sums of resources poured into the national security state since 9/11, the US government’s foreign language capabilities remain absurdly limited. But it seems to me that just being able to talk to people (and read the newspaper, watch the news, etc.) in their native tongue would produce much more in the way of useful information than all the wiretapping in the world.

UPDATE: Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner at Bloggingheads

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