National Security Agency (NSA) Director Keith Alexander is going to tell the entire US Senate today in a classified briefing about “dozens of terror plots he says were thwarted by secret surveillance.” A few thoughts.
If there were dozens of disrupted plots, what happened to the alleged plotters? One would think if American law enforcement captured a single aspiring terrorist, the story would be splashed all over the news and the trial would be closely followed. Yet somehow, there were dozens of thwarted plots that no one has ever heard of before. Given the propensity of the government to justify every fucked-up thing they do in the name of terrorism, and the power and money that flow from keeping the U.S. populace frightened of that threat (while dying at exponentially higher rates from things like guns and lack of health insurance than from terrorist attacks), one would think the feds would have been quite eager to tout at least some of those successes. Were these suspects secretly rendered to other governments? Jailed without charges? Targeted for assassination by the Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Constitutional-Scholar-In-Chief?
Inquiring minds want to know.
What we do know is that terrorist attacks have indeed been thwarted — by everyday citizens and routine police work. Despite all the security theater (and x-ray doses) to which commercial air travelers are subjected, and despite NSA’s massive surveillance operations, Richard Reid, the would-be “Shoe Bomber” somehow managed to get a bomb on board an American Airlines flight to Miami. When he tried to set the thing off, passengers smelled smoke, subdued him and bound him up. A physician on board later gave him a tranquilizer.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Underwear Bomber,” boarded a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight in Amsterdam. More than a month earlier, his own father had gone to a U.S. embassy in Nigeria to report his concerns about his son’s “extreme religious views.” CIA added his name to a database at the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center but it was not added to other terrorist watch lists, nor to the No Fly List. It turns out Abdulmutallab had a U.S. visa fer chrissakes, which was not revoked:
U.S. State Department officials said in Congressional testimony that the State Department had wanted to revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa, but U.S. intelligence officials requested that his visa not be revoked. The intelligence officials’ said that revoking Abdulmutallab’s visa could have foiled a larger investigation into al-Qaeda.
That’s right: with vast surveillance powers and a heads up from CIA, U.S. intelligence officials let a suspected al-Qaeda collaborator fly to the U.S. Fortunately, passengers on the flight subdued him, too.
Then there was Faisal Shahzad, the “Times Square Bomber.” A nearby t-shirt vendor noticed smoke coming out of an awkwardly parked SUV with its hazard lights blinking and the engine running, and alerted a mounted police officer. He called for assistance and safely cleared the area, and the bomb was defused. As law enforcement investigated over the next few days and narrowed in on Shahzad as the prime suspect, they put his name on the No Fly List. He was nonetheless able to buy a ticket to Dubai with cash at JFK airport, and board the plane. The flight was minutes from takeoff before the authorities caught up with him. The plane returned to the gate and he was arrested without incident. T-shirt vendor 1, NSA surveillance 0.
And don’t even get me started on the Boston Marathon Bombers. The U.S. government was tipped twice about Tamerlan Tsarnaev by the Russian Federal Security Bureau, and he was put on a terrorist watch list eighteen months before the bombings.
All of which is to say that in at least these four instances, all of NSA’s draconian panty-sniffing on the Internet communications and phone data of U.S. citizens did not Keep Us Safe™.
I do hope Mr. Alexander is also prepared to discuss with Senators today how these dozens of plots could not possibly have been discovered by traditional, constitutional law enforcement methods, and instead required massive surveillance of American citizens by a branch of the U.S. military, and an enormous, unaccountable and inconceivably costly domestic intelligence infrastructure…that doesn’t even work very well.
Totalitarian surveillance and police states, of course, may very well prevent certain kinds of threats to citizens, but they pose far, far worse dangers themselves. As civil libertarians who have been decrying warrantless domestic spying and other rights abridgements under both Bush and Obama (as opposed to those who vehemently objected under Bush but became overnight fans after Obama was elected and did the same or worse) have long been pointing out, such powers are always — always — expanded beyond their original intent. It is only a matter of time until those powers are turned on political dissidents who dare to be critical of the status quo — people like anti-war protesters, peace activists, transparency advocates, liberals and the press.
I am sure I do not have to remind my Many Tens of Loyal Readers™ that the status quo is presently a lawless oligarchy committed to economic conservatism and permanent war.
And I’ve got news for the naysayers: it’s already happening. The New York Times has reported on the government’s targeting U.S. citizens it believes to be engaging in dissent: when returning to their own country — the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave — they are routinely and repeatedly subjected to extremely invasive border searches, their laptops and other electronic information seized (and sometimes kept for months), all without warrants or even the merest hint of any allegations a crime was committed. Glenn Greenwald has reported many times on it, and frankly it’s terrifying to me that there hasn’t been relentless pressure by outraged ordinary citizens and the mainstream press at these incidents. It’s not really surprising, however. The press finally got worked up only when they discovered that the feds had put under invasive surveillance one of their own, the Associated Press, to determine the identity of a leaker that was their source for an article. Meanwhile, the ordinary citizen, apparently operating without knowledge of U.S. history, sleeps soundly, knowing that invasive surveillance powers and police state tactics will only ever be used on those Other People. You know the ones. Anything is perfectly justified and absolutely necessary, as long as it works to keep Real Americans like him safe. (Even if it doesn’t.)
Here are some real Americans:
Laura Poitras is an award winning, Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker. She produced a film about anti-U.S. insurgents in Iraq, a second film about Islamic radicals in Yemen, and she is presently working on a film about — of all things — U.S. domestic surveillance. She is not accused of any crime, and yet upon returning to the U.S., she has been detained more than 40 times. These friendly little interludes comprise questioning for hours about what she did abroad and with whom, and copying her credit cards and notes. Once, her laptop, camera and cellphone were seized for 41 days. She is editing her latest film outside of the country, because she fears the seizure of research and interview materials that could put her sources at risk should she attempt to cross the U.S. border.
David House is an MIT researcher whose laptop and other electronic devices were seized for seven weeks upon his return to the U.S. from Mexico. It took an ACLU demand letter to finally get his laptop and electronics back from the government, which were returned without any explanation. There is no reason to believe Mr. House was involved in any wrongdoing. Well, except for his dastardly association with the Bradley Manning Support Network, which raises funds and support for Manning’s legal defense (and to which the Palace has contributed).
Lisa M. Wayne is a criminal defense attorney whose laptop was searched and copied upon her return to the U.S. from Mexico. She is a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which is a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit against the government for unconstitutionally detaining another U.S. citizen, Pascal Abidor.
Pascal Abidor holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and France. He is working on his doctorate in Islamic Studies in Montreal and learning Arabic. He was traveling on an Amtrak train from Canada to visit his parents who live in Brooklyn the first time he was detained at the border. Abidor was handcuffed, put in a cell for hours and interrogated, and his laptop was searched and then seized for 11 days. He is now regularly stopped at the border when he travels back to the U.S.
Jacob Applebaum is an Internet security expert, hacker, environmentalist and activist committed to Internet freedom. His work was foundational to the Tor Project, and he has occasionally represented WikiLeaks at industry conferences. He has never been charged with a crime. Nevertheless after trips abroad, he has been detained at the U.S. border 12 times. The government seized his laptop and several mobile phones, and has not returned them. Now he travels without them, much to the government’s displeasure. When he was detained in 2011 at Seattle–Tacoma Airport, agents were visibly unhappy that he was traveling with no laptops or cell phones. He did have a few USB thumb drives, however, with a copy of the Bill of Rights encoded into a blocking device. The agents couldn’t copy the drives. “I don’t have important conversations in the United States anymore,” he told Democracy Now last year. “I don’t have conversations in bed with my partner anymore.”
Gosh, if that’s not Freedom™, well I just don’t know what is. Where can I get me some more of that?
Perhaps you think these U.S. citizens who have broken no laws deserve continuous, warrantless detainment and harassment by federal law enforcement officers, and search or outright seizure of their property for the “crime” of speaking out critically about the actions of the U.S. government — or worse, for studying Islamic culture and learning to speak Arabic. If so, you should get your authoritarian, anti-American ass as far away from my blog as the Internet will allow. But before you go, perhaps you should read the following.
The Atlantic’s James Fallows has been reporting recently on wildly over-the-top police state tactics targeting pilots of small aircraft — a demographic, he notes, that skews heavily toward “older white males who are politically conservative, have money, and often have military experience.” These d00ds (they are all d00ds) are upset and shaken when, after a perfectly ordinary and legal flight to and from points within the continental United States, they are suddenly surrounded by caravans of police vehicles, detained for hours (without warrants, naturally) and repeatedly interrogated by multiple law enforcement agencies: FBI, DEA, DHS, Border Patrol, local police and the occasional county sheriff. Their planes and possessions are searched — again, without warrants — by federal agents and sometimes by dog teams.
The targeted pilots are real estate investors, businessmen, retired guys with some bucks and a sweet tooth for aviation. One is a retired US Navy officer who is now an engineer for a defense contractor, with security clearances. A 70-year old glider pilot who had violated no law, rule or regulation was almost shot down by trigger happy feds in North Carolina. There are also reports emerging of exactly the same tactics being used on innocent people who are targeted for…driving across state lines in their cars.
So if you’re fine with all of this intrusive surveillance (that failed to stop at least four terrorist attacks), and you don’t much mind trigger-happy militarized police forces, and you don’t think your fellow citizens should be allowed to engage in any meaningful dissent, just be warned: sooner or later they will be coming for you. Yes, you. Of course by then, it will be too late for me to tell you what an ignorant, arrogant asshat you are for ever thinking it would turn out any differently.
[NOTE: I am currently working on a more detailed piece about these pilot incidents for an upcoming issue of TPJ, because I think they raise some interesting and significant points. I will post a version of the article here as well.]