Wednesday, May 06, 2015


Dave Weigel has a story about Republican reactions to the attack on the Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. Weigel writes (emphasis added):
Defining the Garland shooting as terrorism could affect two mounting debates in Congress: one, over whether authorizations of military force passed in 2001 and 2002 could justify the current attacks on the Islamic State, seemed to be at an impasse; the other, over surveillance, would be coming to a head as the PATRIOT Act renewal date approaches.

“It probably gives some ammunition to those of us who would like to see the kind of surveillance that would prevent any attack,” said [Senator John] McCain.
So McCain is suggesting that the reason the Garland attack wasn't prevented was a lack of surveillance? He's saying, presumably, that there's inadequate scrutiny of private electronic communications?

Because, actually, there were hints of what was about to happen right out in public, on Twitter, as The New York Times notes:
Counterterrorism officials on Tuesday were studying the electronic trails left by two men killed by a police officer as they shot at a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas, looking for any direct ties to the Islamic State extremist group in Syria....

But any secret ties that officials might find may be less important than the public exchanges of messages on Twitter by one of the gunmen, Elton Simpson, in the weeks before the attack. Mr. Simpson, a convert to Islam with a long history of extremism, regularly traded calls for violence on Twitter with Islamic State fighters and supporters, as well as avowed enemies of Pamela Geller, the organizer of the cartoon contest.

His Twitter contacts included Junaid Hussain, a British fighter with the Islamic State in Syria known as Abu Hussain al-Britani, and Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, a Somali-American now in Somalia who uses the name Mujahid Miski and frequently promotes the Islamic State. Both men called for violence, and Mr. Hassan had suggested the Texas event as a possible target....
So here's a guy who, decade ago, was brought up on charges of trying to travel to Somalia to become a jihadist fighter, and who was convicted of lying to authorities, and now he's publicly exchanging tweets with ISIS members and supporters overseas, and we miss the fact that he was planning an attack, and John McCain thinks we need to redouble our surveillance efforts involving private communications?

The Times story goes on to say that there are a lot of messages out there to track, and it's hard to know which ones to focus on:
The onslaught of recruitment propaganda has multiplied the number of online enthusiasts for the Islamic State in the United States, giving counterterrorism investigators the difficult task of deciding which are simply fantasizing in public and which might be planning violence.

“The ISIS guys are talking to these wannabes on Twitter all day long,” a senior law enforcement official said. “It’s like the devil is sitting on their shoulder saying, ‘Come on, they’re insulting the prophet, what are you going to do about it?’”

The official, who would speak about the continuing investigation only on condition of anonymity, said that although Mr. Simpson had long been under F.B.I. scrutiny, he had not appeared to be preparing for violence. “There are so many like him that you have to prioritize your investigations,” the official said.
Yeah, maybe. That was the reason given for France's failure to head off the Charlie Hebdo massacre, despite the fact that one of the assailants in that attack had a record similar to Simpson's. But are we devoting too many resources to a huge, relatively indiscriminate nationwide dragnet, and too few to people about whom there should be reasonable suspicion, because of their known past actions? Do we favor surveillance technology because it's sexy and seems powerful? Or because it makes lefties and civil libertarians howl?

If we don't have enough resources to distinguish which known ISIS and Al Qaeda wannabes are dangerous, how can we have enough resources to sort the wheat from the chaff in our mass surveillance efforts?


Victor said...

"Do we favor surveillance technology because it's sexy and seems powerful? Or because it makes lefties and civil libertarians howl?"

I'm so damn old, I remember when it was conservatives who didn't want surveillance!

I remember arguing, back in the 70's, with conservatives, because I was FOR a national ID chip.

And they were right (correct!) - for one of the few times - and I was wrong!

The problem isn't finding a needle in a haystack.

If you capture everyone's communications, the problem is to discard whatever hay there is, and prioritize the remaining needles.
Not an easy task, that..........

RAM said...

McCain says "the kind of surveillance" that might prevent such things, meaning possibly stopping this ridiculous mass collection of data and moving to collecting data on those who are already known problems.

If the NSA is busy reading my email (and this post) they have an excellent chance of missing it when some nutjob with a problematic history announces on Facebook he's going to hose down a bunch of other morons.

How anybody thinks the current system can in any way prevent the things everyone seems to think it does is beyond me.

Philo Vaihinger said...

The Garland attack was terrorism and it was prevented.

The two guys went there to kill as many civilians as possible inside at the event.

When they got there, reportedly, there were some 200 attendees on site.

The two guys were prevented from killing any of the attendees, and indeed anyone at all, by a traffic cop.

If he had not been on the spot there were lots of other cops and hired guards on hand to do the job.

McCain is a bed-wetter and a warmonger.

Somebody needs to point out to him that there is NO kind of surveillance that can "prevent any attack."

And, uh, in Garland the attack was prevented by a cop on site, reminding us all why we want even traffic cops to carry guns.

Philo Vaihinger said...

This is propaganda through manipulation of words.

These guys talk or write as if cops or air marshals or FBI, alerted by surveillance, stopping an attack counts as "preventing an attack," but cops or others stopping an attack on their own does not.

So nothing counts as preventing an attack if surveillance is not used.

So only surveillance can prevent an attack.

So if we want to prevent attacks we need to use surveillance.

And if we want to prevent more attacks we need to use more surveillance.

Get it?