Last night, NBC News aired another clip from the Brian Williams interview with Edward Snowden. Snowden said something about how our surveillance system metastasized after 9/11 that seems obvious, but clearly isn't to the government:
From the transcript:
... what [the 9/11 Commission] found, in the post-mortem, when they looked at all of the classified intelligence from all of the different intelligence agencies, they found that we had all of the information we needed as an intelligence community, as a classified sector, as the national defense of the United States to detect this plot. We actually had records of the phone calls from the United States and out. The CIA knew who these guys were. The problem was not that we weren't collecting information, it wasn't that we didn't have enough dots, it wasn't that we didn't have a haystack, it was that we did not understand the haystack that we have.It's a macho thing. It's analogous to what we did with torture. Obviously, torture had to be the right thing to do, because it was so badass. Never mind assessing whether the torture would be effective (much less whether it would be consistent with our laws and professed values) -- we were cranking it up to eleven, and every real man knows deep in his groin that louder, more, harder, angrier, bigger is always better.
The problem with mass surveillance is that we're piling more hay on a haystack we already don't understand, and this is the haystack of the human lives of every American citizen in our country. If these programs aren't keeping us safe, and they’re making us miss connections -- vital connections -- on information we already have, if we're taking resources away from traditional methods of investigation, from law enforcement operations that we know work, if we're missing things like the Boston Marathon bombings where all of these mass surveillance systems, every domestic dragnet in the world didn't reveal guys that the Russian intelligence service told us about by name, is that really the best way to protect our country? Or are we -- are we trying to throw money at a magic solution that's actually not just costing us our safety, but our rights and our way of life?
That's what we're doing with surveillance. Who cares if the program isn't actually preventing terrorist attacks? Who cares if we're collecting more data than we can process intelligently? Bigger is better! The amount of information we collect is huge! That complex in Utah we built to store all the data is massive! Isn't that all you need to know?
On the NBC broadcast, Pete Williams was appalled at what Snowden said:
Well, there's certainly widespread agreement about his first point, that the intelligence agencies missed critical clues about some of the 9/11 hijackers, information, it turned out, that the United States had but failed to recognize its significance. But few have argued, as Snowden does, that the U.S. suffered from too much intelligence in the run-up to last year's Boston Marathon bombing. Two reports, including one from Congress, on the FBI's investigation of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev say, if anything, the FBI was hampered by not having enough information, because of some of the things the Russians did not share in passing along their concerns about the older brother, Tamerlan, well before the bombings....But the promise of this Panopticon is that the government won't miss anything. Yes, the Russians gave the U.S. only the vaguest hints about Tamerlan Tsarnaev -- but if you're scrutinizing everything and everybody, why isn't that enough? Isn't the point of a maximalist surveillance regime that nothing escapes it?
Instead, as Snowden says, we miss needles in lrger and larger haystacks. Because, to us, haystack size is everything.