Terror and Sacrificing Privacy for National Security
Author Shane Harris on Poindexter, terrorists, and 'The Watchers'
The 1983 terrorist attack in
Is the nation's security system too complex for its own good?
Yes. There's a higher degree of focus on collecting information and relatively less focus on trying to make sense of it or analyzing it. The National Counterterrorism Center [is] getting somewhere on the order of 4,000 to 8,000 names per day of suspected terrorists and leads. The master database of known or suspected terrorists, as they like to say, contains over half a million names. There is something of an information overload here that I think is not really conducive to the nature of the terrorist threat, which is very nimble, very agile, and requires a very high degree of focus on analysis.
He was the first person to propose a coordinated, governmentwide approach to countering terrorism. I think of him as the godfather of modern counterterrorism.
Who are the "watchers" today?
Why do security agencies still have such a difficult time connecting the dots?
It is extraordinarily difficult to predict human behavior. When we're talking about terrorist attacks, we're talking about people behaving in ways that they are obviously trying to avoid detection and I think often are behaving, from our perspective, irrationally. The other problem is that the intelligence agencies are simply collecting so much information--in the form of phone intercepts, E-mail intercepts, financial transactions, information that's coming from drones, that's coming in from human sources overseas--that there's not a lot of time in the day to analyze all of it. It requires a lot of focus and some really smart people and a lot of time to do it, and unfortunately, those three items are in short supply right now.
There's a lot of waste in the system?
Yeah. There's a lot of time spent and wasted collecting information, storing it, building databases to store it. You don't see enough focus on trying to use creative energies and analysis. Analysis is a blend of art and science. It's one of these things that's very hard to put a price tag on and to quantify. It's sort of like soft science.
How much is the privacy of citizens compromised for the sake of national security?
In a significant way. The threat to privacy is that as we build these ever vaster collection systems in an environment in which it is already hard to determine the identity of the person communicating or sending the E-mail, you will in fact gather up American communications. So, there's a threat there that is on a much broader, general level that is different from what the threat was in the '60s and '70s, where the government was actively targeting certain Americans for their political speech.
What was the biggest revelation you found?
They were just bringing in so much so fast that they actually could not look at it in real time. So what they did was develop a new kind of database that was extremely expensive and extremely fragile technologically that . . . would allow them to analyze huge amounts of information in real time. No organization that I am aware of had ever reached the point where it was ingesting so much information that it wanted to look at in real time that it literally had to reinvent how data is stored.
What would surprise readers in your book?
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Terror and Sacrificing Privacy for National Security | Jessica Rettig
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