from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

NSA: These Are the Dots

December 20, 2013

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If there was one consensus conclusion after 9/11, it was that we had failed to “connect the dots.” That phrase had two meanings. First, government agencies should stop the “stove piping” that prevented them from sharing critical information. Second, officials had to be aware of critical information, and connect the many and varied pieces imaginatively to determine what the terrorists were up to.

What are the dots? What’s the information that must be available? One very good example is knowing which terrorists are in touch with each other, and where they are. Who is emailing whom? Who is calling whom? The content of those communications is sometimes less important than the fact of them—the fact that phone number A called phone number B, or that phone number B was in Chicago or Kandahar that day, or that email address C got a message of some sort from email address D.

That “metadata” is what NSA collects and what we are now discussing, in the United States, preventing NSA from collecting. There are constitutional and legal arguments, and they strike me as weak. The recent decision against NSA by a U.S. District Court judge is not likely to stand upon appeal, I think, and former Attorney General Mukasey explains why here.  And there are privacy arguments, which appeal to many Americans—most of whom I believe do not understand that NSA does not read their emails or listen to their phone calls, but looks only at the numbers and email addresses that connect up to numbers and addresses they are tracking.

There’s a kind of hysteria developing this week, and only two things can stop it. One is leadership. Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein and House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers are supplying some, refusing to be stampeded. Will the President supply any? Will he explain to Americans what the facts are, and why it would be dangerous to join the stampede? So far, we do not know.

The second thing that could stop or reverse this drive to prevent NSA from doing its work would be another terrorist attack. Then, just as after 9/11, there would be calls for more active intelligence gathering, and we would find ourselves asking “who were the fools who stopped us from collecting the data we need? Who stopped us from collecting and connecting the dots?”

That would be a tragic way of relearning this lesson. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail, and hope that the President can provide some leadership here. Lives may ultimately depend on it.