It’s common wisdom that the NSA was unable to intercept phone calls from Khalid al-Mihdhar in San Diego to Bin Ladin in Yemen because of legal restrictions. This has been used to justify the NSA’s massive phone metadata collection programs. James Bamford argues that there were no legal restrictions, and that the NSA screwed up.
Entries Tagged "9/11"
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Abstract: September 11 created a natural experiment that enables us to track the psychological effects of a large-scale terror event over time. The archival data came from 8,070 participants of 10 ABC and CBS News polls collected from September 2001 until September 2006. Six questions investigated emotional, behavioral, and cognitive responses to the events of September 11 over a five-year period. We found that heightened responses after September 11 dissipated and reached a plateau at various points in time over a five-year period. We also found that emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions were moderated by age, sex, political affiliation, and proximity to the attack. Both emotional and behavioral responses returned to a normal state after one year, whereas cognitively-based perceptions of risk were still diminishing as late as September 2006. These results provide insight into how individuals will perceive and respond to future similar attacks.
It’s something that we’re hearing a lot, both from NSA Director General Keith Alexander and others: the NSA’s mass surveillance programs could have stopped 9/11. It’s not true, and recently two people have published good essays debunking this claim.
Judge Pauley cites the 9/11 Commission Report for his statement that telephone metadata “might have permitted the N.S.A. to notify the [F.B.I.] of the fact that al-Mihdhar was calling the Yemeni safe house from inside the United States.” What the report actually says is that the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. already knew that Al Qaeda was in America, based on the N.S.A.’s monitoring of the Hada phone. If they had told the F.B.I., the agents would have established a link to the embassy-bombings case, which “would have made them very interested in learning more about Mihdhar.” Instead, “the agents who found the source were being kept from obtaining the fruits of their work.”
The N.S.A. failed to understand the significance of the calls between the U.S. and Yemen. The C.I.A. had access to the intelligence, and knew that Al Qaeda was in the U.S. almost two years before 9/11. An investigation by the C.I.A.’s inspector general found that up to sixty people in the agency knew that Al Qaeda operatives were in America. The inspector general said that those who refused to coöperate with the F.B.I. should be held accountable. Instead, they were promoted.
The second is by Peter Bergen, another 9/11 scholar:
But is it really the case that the U.S. intelligence community didn’t have the dots in the lead up to 9/11? Hardly.
In fact, the intelligence community provided repeated strategic warning in the summer of 9/11 that al Qaeda was planning a large-scale attacks on American interests.
All of these serious terrorism cases argue not for the gathering of ever vaster troves of information but simply for a better understanding of the information the government has already collected and that are derived from conventional law enforcement and intelligence methods.
This quote is from the Spring 1997 issue of CRYPTOLOG, the internal NSA newsletter. The writer is William J. Black, Jr., the Director’s Special Assistant for Information Warfare.
Specifically, the focus is on the potential abuse of the Government’s applications of this new information technology that will result in an invasion of personal privacy. For us, this is difficult to understand. We are “the government,” and we have no interest in invading the personal privacy of U.S. citizens.
This is from a Seymour Hersh New Yorker interview with NSA Director General Michael Hayden in 1999:
When I asked Hayden about the agency’s capability for unwarranted spying on private citizens—in the unlikely event, of course, that the agency could somehow get the funding, the computer scientists, and the knowledge to begin making sense out of the Internet—his response was heated. “I’m a kid from Pittsburgh with two sons and a daughter who are closet libertarians,” he said. “I am not interested in doing anything that threatens the American people, and threatens the future of this agency. I can’t emphasize enough to you how careful we are. We have to be so careful—to make sure that America is never distrustful of the power and security we can provide.”
It’s easy to assume that both Black and Hayden were lying, but I believe them. I believe that, 15 years ago, the NSA was entirely focused on intercepting communications outside the US.
What changed? What caused the NSA to abandon its non-US charter and start spying on Americans? From what I’ve read, and from a bunch of informal conversations with NSA employees, it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That’s when everything changed, the gloves came off, and all the rules were thrown out the window. That the NSA’s interests coincided with the business model of the Internet is just a—lucky, in their view—coincidence.
This article wonders if we are:
Yet for pretty much the first time there has been a considerable amount of media commentary seeking to put terrorism in context—commentary that concludes, as a Doyle McManus article in the Los Angeles Times put it a day after the attack, “We’re safer than we think.”
Similar tunes were sung by Tom Friedman of the New York Times, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, David Rothkopf writing for CNN.com, Josh Barro at Bloomberg, John Cassidy at the New Yorker, and Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, even as the Washington Post told us “why terrorism is not scary” and published statistics on its rarity. Bruce Schneier, who has been making these arguments for over a decade, got 360,000 hits doing so for The Atlantic. Even neoconservative Max Boot, a strong advocate of the war in Iraq as a response to 9/11, argues in the Wall Street Journal, “we must do our best to make sure that the terrorists don’t achieve their objective—to terrorize us.”
James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation noted in a radio interview that “the odds of you being killed by a terrorist are less than you being hit by a meteorite.” Carafano’s odds may be a bit off, but his basic point isn’t. At present rates, an American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year—compared, for example, to a yearly chance of dying in an automobile crash of one in 8,200. That could change, of course, if terrorists suddenly become vastly more capable of inflicting damage—as much commentary on terrorism has predicted over the past decade. But we’re not hearing much of that anymore.
In a 60 Minutes interview a decade ago filmmaker Michael Moore noted, “The chances of any of us dying in a terrorist incident is very, very, very small.” Bob Simon, his interlocutor, responded, “No one sees the world like that.”
Both statements were pretty much true then. However, the unprecedented set of articles projecting a more restrained, and broader, perspective suggests that Simon’s wisdom may need some updating, and that Moore is beginning to have some company.
And, of course, President Obama himself declared that “Americans refuse to be terrorized.”
This statistical research says once per decade:
Abstract: Quantities with right-skewed distributions are ubiquitous in complex social systems, including political conflict, economics and social networks, and these systems sometimes produce extremely large events. For instance, the 9/11 terrorist events produced nearly 3000 fatalities, nearly six times more than the next largest event. But, was this enormous loss of life statistically unlikely given modern terrorism’s historical record? Accurately estimating the probability of such an event is complicated by the large fluctuations in the empirical distribution’s upper tail. We present a generic statistical algorithm for making such estimates, which combines semi-parametric models of tail behavior and a non-parametric bootstrap. Applied to a global database of terrorist events, we estimate the worldwide historical probability of observing at least one 9/11-sized or larger event since 1968 to be 11-35%. These results are robust to conditioning on global variations in economic development, domestic versus international events, the type of weapon used and a truncated history that stops at 1998. We then use this procedure to make a data-driven statistical forecast of at least one similar event over the next decade.
Article about the research.
Nice essay on the futility of trying to prevent another 9/11:
“Never again.” It is as simplistic as it is absurd. It is as vague as it is damaging. No two words have provided so little meaning or context; no catchphrase has so warped policy discussions that it has permanently confused the public’s understanding of homeland security. It convinced us that invulnerability was a possibility.
The notion that policies should focus almost exclusively on preventing the next attack has also masked an ideological battle within homeland-security policy circles between “never again” and its antithesis, commonly referred to as “shit happens” but in polite company known as “resiliency.” The debate isn’t often discussed this way, and not simply because of the bad language. Time has not only eased the pain of that day, but there have also been no significant attacks. “Never again” has so infiltrated public discourse that to even acknowledge a trend away from prevention is considered risky, un-American. Americans don’t do “Keep Calm and Carry On.” But if they really want security, the kind of security that is sustainable and realistic, then they are going to have to.
There’s a lot of good material in this essay.
I’m reading Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. Both work for The Washington Post. The book talks about the rise of the security-industrial complex in post 9/11 America. This short quote is from Chapter 3:
Such dread was a large part of the post-9/11 decade. A culture of fear had created a culture of spending to control it, which, in turn, had led to a belief that the government had to be able to stop every single plot before it took place, regardless of whether it involved one network of twenty terrorists or one single deranged person. This expectation propelled more spending and even more zero-defect expectations. There were tens of thousands of unsolved murders in the United States by 2010, but few newspapers ever blared this across their front pages or even tried to investigate how their police departments had to failed to solve them all over the years. But when it came to terrorism, newspaper and other media outlets amplified each mistake, which amplified the threat, which amplified the fear, which prompted more spending, and on and on and on.
It’s a really good book so far. I recommend it.
EDITED TO ADD (7/13): The project’s website has a lot of interesting information as well.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.