3. Target the bad guys.
Supporters of a massive, effectively unregulated surveillance state are constantly touting the benefits of dragnet-style reporting requirements and snooping. For instance, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) have said repeatedly that NSA logging of phone call metadata and internet traffic were instrumental in the 2009 arrests of Najibullah Zazi, who plotted to blow up New York’s subway system, and David Headley, who traveled to Mumbai to scope the Taj Mahal hotel for an attack. Yet it turns out that neither case provides any evidence for the efficacy of widespread surveillance programs.
Indeed, they point to the effectiveness of old-fashioned intelligence and police work, where authorities keep tabs on people and groups with well-known reputations for violence and terrorism (Zazi was picked up based on tips from British agents; as a former Drug Enforcment Adminstration informant (!), Headley was well-known to investigators).
Surveillance-state supporters are constantly invoking the “needle-in-the-haystack” metaphor, the idea being that finding terrorists requires patient sifting through huge mounds of extraneous material. It’s odd then, isn’t it, that the basic urge is always to increase the size of the haystack rather than decrease it. Consider how The PATRIOT Act vastly increased the number of “currency transaction reports” (CTRs) that banks needed to file with the federal government in the name of outing terrorist money flows. Originally created to help snag drug kingpins, some 12 million CTRs were being filed annually before 9/11—a number that was already overwhelming any ability to use the information effectively. Creating a bigger haystack isn’t a smart way to find bad guys hidden within.
The same dynamic is at work in arguably the most-visible and least-popular excresence of the war on terror: the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the imposition of invasive and time-consuming procedures at the nation’s airports. The threat of hijacked planes being used as missiles was effectively ended on the morning of 9/11 itself, when passengers charged hijackers on United Flt 93 and drove the plane into a Pennsylvania field. The barricading of cockpit doors shortly after 9/11 ended the possibility of a repeat of 9/11. Yet we continue to fund a massively expensive system to search all people boarding airplanes in a long-running exercise in “security theater” that accomplishes nothing.
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