Remarks of President Barack Obama
Results of our Signals Intelligence Review
January 17, 2014 in Washington DC
from theguardian.com, January 17, 2014
This brings me to program that has generated the most controversy these past few months – the bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215. Let me repeat what I said when this story first broke – this program does not involve the content of phone calls, or the names of people making calls. Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers and the times and lengths of calls – meta-data that can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization.
Why is this necessary? The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11. One of the 9/11 hijackers – Khalid al-Mihdhar – made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaeda safe-house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but could not see that it was coming from an individual already in the United States. The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible. This capability could also prove valuable in a crisis. For example, if a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence. Being able to quickly review telephone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort.
When a super-power can be, and has been, attacked by some radical, racist, bigoted thugs, to the level of 9/11when some 3000 innocent people died and thousands of other innocents remain scarred for life, in the name of and to the glory of Allah, and when that super-power has to respond at the level of trawling on the world-wide-web, including the tracking of billions, if not trillions of individual phone calls, e-mails and all other digitally facilitated communications, in order to prevent or anticipate a repeat attack, we have to be careful not to fall into the traditional "david-goliath" archetype in our conventional response. A sling-shot felled a behemoth, who, following the research of Malcolm Gladwell, was nearly blind, quite crippled and virtually unprepared for the kind of duel that David presented with his single stone, from a distance, and not an "armed combat" in the traditional (at that time) method of settling disputes.
Bankrupting the American treasury, following in the footsteps of a long tradition of the highest military spending for all countries for all of history by generating another bureaucratic monster in parallel to the Pentagon, Homeland Security Department/National Security Agency (on top of the already sizeable FBI and CIA), while forcing a public debate on the requisite balance between security and privacy, renders the U.S. susceptible to the notion of stubbing its monstrous "toe" on the human divide of "turf wars" within the various, competing and siloed agencies.
For example, (and there are too many of these!) the FBI has an outpost less than one mile from the American Consulate in Benghazi in which four American diplomats, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed by terrorists; yet the FBI had not communicated their "existence or their proximity" to the State Department. Consequently, those diplomats were left "hanging in the wind" when they needed protection from their country's resources. (It is also true that Stevens himself rejected U.S. security protection, preferring instead to hire and retain Libyan operatives, clinging to his "get close to the people" approach to his ambassadorship.)
As a Democrat, Obama is susceptible to the traditional Democratic notion that government, by its sheer size, complexity and omnipresence can provide the best "protection" on both fronts of national security and personal privacy. However, bigness is, and has been in too many historical moments, a fatal flaw in the thinking of individuals, corporations and nation states. Just because one (person, organization, agency or even country) is big, powerful in the hard-power definition of the word "powerful", heavily financed and ornately wrapped in high-blown legal language, does not make it safe from that single stone that felled the behemoth Goliath. Similarly, as we witness the fastest and most disturbing growth in income of those already most wealthy among us, (plus economic, tax and social policies that would feed that "monster" through the co-dependence of the political class who view such growth as the holy grail) as a culture we are in serious danger of becoming sycophant to that idol.
It has national and international implications, when we see that the pursuit of profit (and all the extrinsic measures of that profit) trump social policies like extended benefits to the unemployed, single-payer health care, kindergarten for all children, job re-training, Food Stamps and homelessness. When a metastasizing tumor-of-terror like the Al-Qaeda "derivatives" can accomplish a level of fear in a proud and powerful and 'intelligent' and industrious and creative and innovative "leader" on the international stage, as it already has with the U.S. determined as it is to prevent any repeat of 9/11, then one has to wonder if the terrorists have not already accomplished their mission.
Cancer victims, we are told repeatedly, do not let cancer define their existence; otherwise it wins, even though the termination date may be extended for a few months or even years. Of course, medical analogies, the political class would be quick to remind us, do not apply to the Islamic terror threat to national security and the narrative to defend against it.
Has the United States fallen victim to the "cancer now defines us" mentality, perception and attitude?
Having 'created' the internet, and subsequently the deeper and more encrypted "deep internet" through which criminals, terrorists and those who operate exclusively on the dark side can and do conduct their 'business' in secrecy with impunity and immunity from detection and prosecution, is the United States falling victim to its own hubris?
A major speech by the president, so deemed by the White House, on the operations of the National Security Agency and its future 'containment' that does not even mention the "deep internet" and the far greater security implications of another of the "weapons" the U.S. has developed for its own protection seems to be vacuous public relations, or once again manipulating at the fringes, in order to calm the 'natives' who have grown restless with the headlines that their phone calls and e-mails have been compromised. It may be necessary, but it hardly contains a full disclosure even of the paradigm of the deep internet, let alone the fine print of its dangerous, and out-of-control gallop, given that even those who designed the creature cannot bring it to heel.
We see that it was the United States who originally supplied Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction back in the 1980's, only to have a different United States administration inflict a military strike of massive proportions against the potentially dangerous deployment of those weapons by that same tyrant and former ally. We also see that the largest single player in the international weapons market, both above board and illicit, is the United States, with their weapons falling inevitably and invariably into the hands of those whose have become their enemies. Supplying Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq with weapons to fight the Islamic terrorists in Anbar province, following their capture of both Fallujah and Ramadi, will see those same weapons being used against Maliki's forces in that very region. So, one has to wonder how effective such "support" really is from the Americans, except as a public relations "show" for the reputation of the United States, that it is actually engaged in Maliki's struggles.
Rather than build more and bigger and more complicated "weapons-and-intelligence systems" to defend the people of the United States against the real and dangerous threats of sabotage from terrorists, as well as from cyber-enemies like China, one has to ask whether the people of the United States, as well as the rest of the global population would not be more secure if and when the United States could and would come clean with the full truth of its misplaced frightened and potentially and ironically most-likely-to-backfire "overprotection" through the design and implementation of extrinsic symbols of hard power.
"But," you say, as does the president, "National Security has to operate in secrecy in order to be effective so that proposal would be naïve and self-sabotaging, not to mention extremely adolescent!"
To which I rebut, "I had not noticed that Goliath was "protected" by his size and superior weaponry, given that David would not and did not engage him on "his" terms.
The terrorists have not, do not, and will not engage any of the major powers of the world "on their terms" and it would seem that the major powers continue to rely on, even grow their "traditional terms" of engagement, including the most sophisticated technologies of both weaponry and digital invasion. As the president acknowledged, those who operate these systems will always seek to expand their capacity and therefore must be reigned in by oversight.
Would the same perception and principle not also apply to the nation whose interests are at stake in this conflict?
Is the country itself not in danger of falling victim to its own ambition to self-aggrandize, for its own sake, because it provides a veneer, a dramatic "show" of protection, while the truth telling and the vulnerability, or to put it another way, the simplicity of a David, is not "becoming" to a super-power?
Many issues, and certainly national security is one prime example, are now couched in terms of being "highly complex" and "having multiple variables with multiple competing interests". Therefore the resolution of these many issues is presented and seen as highly unlikely because to find the compromise that balances the competing interests, while preserving the "face" of the nation, that all-important hubris again, is or is deemed to be "out-of-reach" of those responsible for the compromise.
In a highly ideological political climate, that demonstrates simultaneously a clinging to the "talking points" of that ideology and a pretense to "work together" with the other side, it is little wonder that such a predictable oscillation will generate few if any "end results." Similarly, a different oscillation that holds fast to the "protection of privacy" while all the while galloping into a world controlled by the technology that is outstripping both legislation and the human capacity to control that technology will only produce more political rhetoric without any actual resolution, until the technology finally takes over all the levers that were previously thought to be under the control of their human designers and operators.