Skip

Could Unlimited Phone Surveillance Have Prevented 9/11?
January 12, 2014 9:21 PM   Subscribe


 
worth repeating:

because one of the first things they did in Germany post-WW2 was pass legislation to make sure there could never again a fully functional National Police Force ... because that's what the Gestapo was.

and now I'll read the link.
posted by philip-random at 9:40 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Unlimited phone serveillance would not have worked in 2001 because at the time most of the Arab speakers in the intelligence community had been purged for having the ghay. Arab speakers might as well have been Code Talkers.
posted by ericts at 9:45 PM on January 12 [14 favorites]


sometimes, it's worth jumping ahead to the last couple of paragraphs ...

The intelligence community has since been reorganized to prevent such closeting of information. Many terrorist schemes have been discovered and prevented. But questions remain about how the C.I.A. handled events leading up to 9/11. What did the agency intend to do about the Al Qaeda operatives in America? The former national-security adviser Richard Clarke believes that the C.I.A. hoped to recruit them.

Edward Snowden broke the law, and the Obama Administration has demanded that he be brought to justice. No one has died because of his revelations. The C.I.A.’s obstruction of justice in the Cole investigation arguably also was a crime. Its failure to share information from the Al Qaeda switchboard opened the door to the biggest terrorist attack in history. As long as we’re talking about accountability, why shouldn’t we demand it of the C.I.A.?

posted by philip-random at 9:51 PM on January 12 [7 favorites]




and now I'll read the link.

I would encourage people to read the article before commenting, because the way it's been framed in this post makes it sound like its arguing flatly against metadata collection, when it's not. The author paints a picture of a collage of overlapping intelligence agencies with several balls in play and with varying purviews. What the author is saying (or strongly implying) is that the CIA and FBI were already aware of all the Al-Qaeda players in the United States, and failed to stop 9/11 because they either didn't share information with each other, or had reasons to keep these terrorists in play (i.e were hoping to turn them), or both. All things being equal, the answer to the question, "Could unlimited phone surveillance have prevented 9/11?" is a mild, "Well, we could have stopped it ten other ways, if we had our wits about us."

As for the answer to the question, "Could unlimited phone surveillance stop the next attack?" I don't see how you could argue against this. Not that I'm arguing for it. And perhaps there's the rub. Just to be clear, there are a few sentences between the quotes you pulled, so that:
Yes, the F.B.I. could have stopped 9/11. It had a warrant to establish surveillance of everyone connected to Al Qaeda in America. It could follow them, tap their phones, clone their computers, read their e-mails, and subpoena their medical, bank, and credit-card records. It had the right to demand records from telephone companies of any calls they had made. There was no need for a metadata-collection program.
This is no small thing. So in a world where an agency is already allowed to "tap" computers and emails, it follows that they should have access to as much information as possible. I don't understand how you would even draw a distinction between these two activities without invoking a legal or moral principle, which has not been done here. Terrorists do not come out of a factory with a tag on them. How and when to apply the Fourth Amendment, that is and remains the big question.

Along those lines, Obama will reportedly announce big changes to NSA on Friday.
posted by phaedon at 9:59 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]


Half narcoleptic population, half ruminant ovine, it's Sheeple!
posted by panaceanot at 10:07 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


We can't have 100% security and 100% privacy. Our choices are 99% privacy (robust 4th amendment protection of the right to be secure against unreasonable search, the expectation of a pre-9/11 America) for 72% security (percentage of Americans that say their lives were not permanently changed by 9/11), or 0% privacy (Stasi-like society where the government tracks where we are and who we talk to at all times) for 72% security.
posted by eddydamascene at 10:27 PM on January 12 [6 favorites]


Could Unlimited Phone Surveillance Have Prevented 9/11?

Not likely.

Could Unlimited Phone real-time Surveillance Have Prevented 9/11?

Possibly. But there's just no way to find out what is signal and what is noise in every call...quickly enough to act on it.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:30 PM on January 12


In a Friday interview on NPR, a guy from the NSA said that the program has stopped at most one plot, and that one plot is kind of iffy. And the NSA guy disingenuously implies that this allows them to stop 100% of attacks, which is just poppycock, given the fact that we've had terrorist attacks even with these programs. It's quite disturbing that somebody with such poor judgement gets the job title "Deputy Director."

It's one of those quirks of humanity that these guys probably even honestly feel like they're the good guys, while simultaneously subverting our nation's ideals and for no positive outcome. I'm sure there are other people who are somewhat reflective like Snowden, but I would bet that there's a lot of denial, and a lot of NSA employees that are mystified that they're being cast as the bad guys in this. Time to gut this disreputable and dishonest agency. Cut it to a tenth of its current budget, disallow it the ability to hire any contractors. It's a ridiculous waste of our freedom and our money.
posted by Llama-Lime at 10:38 PM on January 12 [7 favorites]


Gee, if only somebody had read the memo about Bin Laden being determined to strike the US...
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:43 PM on January 12 [15 favorites]


We can't have 100% security and 100% privacy.

there is no such thing as 100% security
posted by thelonius at 11:19 PM on January 12 [7 favorites]


Could Unlimited Phone real-time Surveillance Have Prevented 9/11?

Regardless of 9/11, once the Supreme Court voted in Bush, would the PATRIOT Act, illegal wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, illegal surveillance, war profiteering and all the other abuses and collateral murder we're still dealing with have followed as an inevitable consequence? Once the gang of nine cast the die, perhaps that was it for post-empire America. If Bush and Cheney weren't able to look the other way while their Saudi friends made 9/11 happen, perhaps there would have probably been some other fantastic event allowed to happen that would have lead to the same outcome.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:21 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]


From reading the 9/11 report, it seems fairly clear that if the agencies had simply cooperated effectively on the information they actually had at the time, they'd have had an excellent chance of preventing 9/11.

The President was sent a memo saying that Al Qaeda was determined to strike in the United States, mentioning a plan to use airplanes to fly into federal buildings in lower Manhattan. The 9/11 commission report expresses this as "The system was blinking red". (Source)

Separately, FBI agents were concerned about suspects getting flying lessons who were uninterested in learning how to land... but were squashed by their superiors.

The information was there. If people weren't willing to do their jobs then, and received not the slightest punishment for their incompetence despite the thousands dead and billions in property destroyed, why do we possibly think that more spying on the American people more will do anything other than make matters worse by introducing a huge amount of completely irrelevant information?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:30 PM on January 12 [27 favorites]


> As for the answer to the question, "Could unlimited phone surveillance stop the next attack?" I don't see how you could argue against this.

On the contrary, I don't see how you could argue for this. The US already has far too much data. The issue is certainly not "inadequate amounts of data" but "inability to intelligently process the data we already have".
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:33 PM on January 12 [8 favorites]


We did not pay attention to the data we had. More data would just have been more to overlook. What we had was sufficient, ignored or misinterpreted.

Also, a lot has happened in 13 years. The load was admittedly smaller, but storage was way expensive and MIPS insufficient for the kinds of stuff done today. Before 9/11, we also weren't even looking at the Saudis, which incidentally, were the people who attacked us, not the Iraqis. ( And certainly not Angela Merkel! )
posted by FauxScot at 11:46 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the US has thwarted an attack by Angela Merkel... That would explain everything!
posted by el io at 11:53 PM on January 12 [12 favorites]


["Inside job" derail deleted. Let's not.]
posted by taz at 1:10 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]


There is simply no way that mass surveillance and bulk data collection is effective for preventing terrorism because you've so little signal amongst all the noise. And any money you spend on bulk data collection could be spent on more effectively measures.

Any realistic reason for mass surveillance and bulk data collection boils down to oppression, ala selective enforcement, political prosecutions, intimidating reformers, chilling speech, etc. You only investigate everyone so that (a) you know who takes political action and (b) you have dirt on them.

Oakland's $11M DAC complex was built mostly because the city wished to monitor protestors. And the FBI, CIA, etc. have a much more pernicious role in obstructing activism.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:14 AM on January 13




I hate mass surveillance, but I think I've written before on MeFi that the starting point for rolling back excessive intelligence and surveillance activities is an honest national conversation about risk. Not privacy. Not really operational effectiveness, either.

As long as senior stakeholders, from the President down, have more to lose from a terrorist attack than from negative voter sentiment on privacy and surveillance then the situation will continue. This is reinforced by the fact that privacy invasions are often hidden or abstract. Successful terrorist attacks attract disproportionate publicity.

At an operational level things did change. The changes that enabled the access Chelsea Manning had to thousands of sensitive documents were a direct response to walled garden approaches pre 9/11. Voters don't really care if agencies hold hands nicely now. They may or may not care that the government tracks their phone calls or digital lives but until the effects of that surveillance actually impact them tangibly or emotionally they probably really only care at the level of principle.

They still care deeply about being victims and feeling like victims.

We know that 9/11 created an effect far beyond the wildest dreams of the terrorists that planned and executed it - derailing foreign policy for a generation, bringing about the wastage of trillions of dollars - not to mention several hundred thousand lives, further isolating Israel and creating an unholy mess across the Stans, north Africa and the middle east for Al Qaeda followers to try and benefit from.

Domestically, it brought about the absurd situation in which a mass of Americans clutched the flag to their chest and boldly declared they would not be defeated. And yet the damage to the national psyche, the influence on domestic politics, the impact on liberty, privacy and the rule of law (I'm referring to things like torture, rendition and incarceration without trial) has been profound. Where America's response to Pearl Harbor showcased its power and leadership on the world stage I think 9/11 will be seen definitively as the end of that era. The point at which America's role as a single superpower unravelled in the face of a vastly more complex international landscape, populated by powerful non-state actors, powerful failed states and some seriously powerful regional/global players (Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, China). More importantly, perhaps, the response 9/11 exposed more fully the yawning gap between American political rhetoric as the land of the free and fair and its actions.

Which brings me back to the artlcle: why the hell are two lone federal judges deciding on whether mass surveillance is OK? That's nuts. Wright's article, which is an interesting one, is still fundamentally a technical one about why approach x is better than y. The bigger question about how America derisks through foreign policy and the big domestic conversation about how it deals with risk, with hindsight of the actual, political and social costs of the 9/11 response, seem a long way off.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:13 AM on January 13 [21 favorites]


Colbert should give the speech, but encrypted.
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 3:21 AM on January 13 [7 favorites]


Adding hay to the haystack won't help you find the needle.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:51 AM on January 13 [9 favorites]


Could unlimited surveillance stop drunk driving would be a better question, considering it causes more than three times the number of deaths that 9/11 did every single year.
posted by walrus at 4:45 AM on January 13 [16 favorites]


This is all a bit like an inquest as to why the stable door was left open, causing the horse to bolt, when in reality it was the stable owners themselves that deliberately left the door ajar.
posted by Monkeymoo at 5:01 AM on January 13


Could Unlimited Phone Surveillance Have Prevented 9/11?

This assumes that some of the people who had the power to stop the issue wanted the issue stopped.

It doesn't take that many people who should be rowing in one direction rowing in another or dragging their paddles to place a ship off course.

But why not pick a more "historic" topic - one where the wound is less fresh and the rhetoric is less emotional to ask the question about surveillance, data, and action? One where the rhetoric is less subjected to emotional button pushing of Sept 11th 2001.

WWII - Pearl Harbor. A report from Dušan "Duško" Popov via surveillance was dismissed by people up the chain as information was too precise and too complete to be true. They assumed it was a trap since the information detailed exactly where, when, how, and by whom the United States was going to be attacked.


(and my memory is the Mad Cow Morning News web site used to have articles about how the actions of accused members of 9/11 event were under surveillance, reports were generated and sent to people higher up the chain of command where 'the ball got dropped'. One might wish to spend some time with Welcome to Terrorland along with the rest of the site and ponder how the intelligence state as "known" to exist functions VS others in society. )
posted by rough ashlar at 5:12 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Which brings me back to the artlcle: why the hell are two lone federal judges deciding on whether mass surveillance is OK? That's nuts.

1) because that is the system that exists.
2) because so few people are willing to place their lives on the line and toss themselves into the gears of the "justice machine" in an attempt to effect change.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:14 AM on January 13


"...why not pick a more "historic" topic - one where the wound is less fresh and the rhetoric is less emotional..."

Well there's also the Gulf of Tonkin, and the sinking of the RMS Lusitania...

It would seem that America has a proud history of manipulating / manufacturing threat in order that it can go about its international wishes. There were more warnings than Popov's re: Pearl Harbor btw....
posted by Monkeymoo at 5:18 AM on January 13


because one of the first things they did in Germany post-WW2 was pass legislation to make sure there could never again a fully functional National Police Force ... because that's what the Gestapo was.

This is a deeply un-serious comment. It masquerades as profound, but it's trite, ahistorical, and without any substantial merit.

And I say that as someone deeply disturbed by centralized policing and domestic intelligence gathering.
posted by OmieWise at 5:19 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Stephen Colbert urged to cancel speech for NSA-linked privacy firm RSA (petition)

apparently they never watched Colbert's speech at the White House Press Correspondents Dinner...
posted by ennui.bz at 5:28 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]


It would seem that America has a proud history of manipulating / manufacturing threat in order that it can go about its international wishes.

To be fair, the path starting up that mountain had started long before and unless base human nature changes will continue up that mountain long after the United States of America ceases to exist unless there is some form of enlightenment happens. New and exciting technologies will allow different and new routes toward the summit of assholery to be chosen is all.

At least being aware of the topography is a start to deciding if such is the place one wants to be.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:50 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Might mass surveillance prevent the next huge terrorist attack?

Maybe. Probably not, in fact. But let's assume for the sake of argument that it absolutely could. Then the relevant question becomes:

Would preventing huge terrorist attacks save enough lives to be worth putting up with mass surveillance for?

To get the sense of proportion needed to answer that, it helps to consider the leading causes of preventable deaths and think about how valuable any associated freedoms are held to be.

From those numbers, it seems that the US values its collective freedom to stick burning leaves in its mouth enough to tolerate over 400,000 preventable deaths per year from people doing that. That's more people than a hundred 9/11 events happening every year would kill.

It seems to me that freedom from mass surveillance ought to be valued rather higher than 1% of the value put on the freedom to absorb nicotine.
posted by flabdablet at 6:03 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]


Unlimited phone surveillance didn't stop Boston from happening.
posted by srboisvert at 6:39 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]


Cops have killed over 5000 Americans during the last decade. I wonder if universal surveillance of only law enforcement personnel might curtail that number?

We should just require that vaporizers marketed for tobaco, marijuana, or other substances release more nicotine or THC than tars, flabdablet, such goals appear reasonable based upon the Tilt. We could then forbid actual cigarets, while keeping or making tobaco, nicotine, marijuana, etc. all legal.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:49 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


[Guys, maybe we could stick a little closer to the topic of the post here, rather than making this an all-purpose, "but what about OTHER bad thing?" potluck?]
posted by taz at 6:56 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Could Unlimited Phone Surveillance Have Prevented 9/11?

Could absolute computer-assisted domination of every human being on the planet, via embedded neuro-control chips, have stopped 9/11?
posted by mondo dentro at 7:30 AM on January 13 [8 favorites]


The information in this article was public knowledge as far back as early 2002. We even had a post about it. I suspect that 10 years from now we'll be having the same conversation.
posted by euphorb at 7:53 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


The idea that risk should be the defining factor is nowhere near talked about enough.

I can't offhand think of a credible existential risk for any major Western democracy from terrorists. Those that come the closest - bio-engineered weapons, simultaneous nuclear explosions in all major metropolitan areas, co-ordinated infrastructure hits - are either impossible to construe without activity that would be picked up by a moderate intelligence effort, or are lone twisted supergenius territory a la Unibomber which posits someone with enough chops to do an end-run over superlative state surveillance.

The existential risk to "our way of life" from ubiquitous state surveillance is more subtle, but arguably much greater. You need things like dysfunctional politics, ineffective media, lack of regulatory oversight... well, there we go, eh?

The other risk from creating a surveillance state is technology leakage - just as in the Cold War, where if you invented something, the other guys got hold of it fairly shortly afterwards. You can, if you wish, be cool about a functioning democracy retaining the chops to control its own surveillance systems enough to effectively protect citizens' rights, but the same tools will be in the hands of authoritarian states without those controls and with even more impetus to use them to further the aims of the controlling elite. Which, as we have seen, rarely stay within the borders of said state.

That will, in short, create a much more potent existential threat to global stability.

I think it's fascinating that something like Tor came from the US state - a very subtle form of electronic warfare against totalitarianism - and can only fantasize about a more determined attempt to guarantee freedom of thought across the world through making the tools available. (One wonders about Bitcoin...)
posted by Devonian at 7:57 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]




because one of the first things they did in Germany post-WW2 was pass legislation to make sure there could never again a fully functional National Police Force ... because that's what the Gestapo was.

This is a deeply un-serious comment. It masquerades as profound, but it's trite, ahistorical, and without any substantial merit.


Seriously?

I confess I didn't do the research on it myself. It's just something I was told more than once while traveling in Germany around twenty years ago and you're the first person who's ever contradicted it. Care to illuminate me further.
posted by philip-random at 9:23 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Are we still having this argument? As much as any other reason for the Patriot Act and increased surveillance was because Bush needed to say, "Oh, my God! How could this have happened? It couldn't have been us screwing up. It had to be some sinister law that prevented us from doing our job." Which was echoed and reinforced by the various agencies. "We didn't screw up!"
(Spoiler alert:) They screwed up.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:48 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Muffinman, that was spot on. Flagged as fantastic.
posted by ZakDaddy at 10:17 AM on January 13


The information in this article was public knowledge as far back as early 2002. We even had a post about it. I suspect that 10 years from now we'll be having the same conversation.

Yes, to all. Clusters were fucked, but it wasn't because nobody knew things, and it certainly wasn't because "nobody could have foreseen."
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:04 AM on January 13


Edward Snowden broke the law, and the Obama Administration has demanded that he be brought to justice. No one has died because of his revelations.

That's a pretty sweeping statement. Do we have any evidence that it's true?
posted by Chuffy at 11:13 AM on January 13


I'd disagree with your assertion too, philip-random, but because the German national police have proven more effective than American police. At least they've actually caught several small time but real islamic terrorists, while the FBI always trains its own fake terrorists, misses any real plots, and invests in surveillance pipe dreams of social control.

I'd expect the Germans police focus more on real police work specifically because they play by a rulebook with greater limits on social control activities. In particular, law enforcement can always play Cosgrove by saying "we're watching you, so knock it off," involving underage suspect's families, etc., even when they don't really have anything.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:25 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]




Threads like this make me want to gift memberships to Bruce Schneier and Steven Aftergood.
posted by nevercalm at 12:14 PM on January 13


because one of the first things they did in Germany post-WW2 was pass legislation to make sure there could never again a fully functional National Police Force ... because that's what the Gestapo was.

I don't think national police are an inherently bad thing (though, as with many types of national organizations, it's not a very American thing). A lot of European nations have gendarmerie, after all.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:19 PM on January 13


I confess I didn't do the research on it myself.

One could listen to someone make a claim - After WWII various nations made it harder to repeat the events of WWII

But I agree - the poster stating
This is a deeply un-serious comment. It masquerades as profound, but it's trite, ahistorical, and without any substantial merit.

should be able to provide some proof to back that up as I'm guessing there exists a public record of the debate on the laws of post WWII nations where lawmakers voting for X stated they didn't want a repeat of WWII.
posted by rough ashlar at 1:08 PM on January 13


Edward Snowden broke the law, and the Obama Administration has demanded that he be brought to justice. No one has died because of his revelations.

That's a pretty sweeping statement. Do we have any evidence that it's true?


You can't prove a negative. But the US government has not offered any evidence to the contrary.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:09 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]




[Couple of comments deleted. This thread isn't about whether 9/11 was an inside job, also isn't about censorship; as always on MeFi, we ask that you please stick to the topic of the post. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:44 PM on January 13


I've missed any "inside job" comments the admins keep deleting here, but, if you've such inclinations, maybe you should take more care with your tenses. You might worry less about "Was 9/11 an inside job?" and focus on the conditional "Would 9/11 have been an inside job?"

I prefer the framing "If given a time machine capable of travel as far back as 2001, would Cheney, Bush, Clapper, Brennan, Hayden, Alexander, etc. use it to prevent 9/11?". It directly discusses the complete lack of ethics amongst the people doing real world bad shift like mass surveillance. And their lack of ethics is relevant to discussions like this one.

Just saw this this insane article, which suggests that FarsNews is the Iranian FoxNews, perhaps such papers should be called propoganbloids.

posted by jeffburdges at 2:54 AM on January 14








SMBC on Repression
posted by jeffburdges at 4:53 PM on January 25




« Older Do "tendrils of past mind-sets still remain"?   |   Guardian: PornHub Porn trends in the UK Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post