8 jan. 2010

How Republicans Ruined the Intelligence Community

Karen De Young of the Washington Post informs us that the reforms to America's intelligence community initiated by President Bush and the Republicans in Congress in 2004, the legislation which created the National Counterterrorism Center, were the primary factor in the failure of the Intelligence Community to identify and deter the "underwear bomber."

That can't be true, can it? After all, everyone knows (or at least Republicans do) that it was Obama who made us less safe by de-prioritizing the "War on Terror."

Still, Ms. De Young does cite some damning evidence that suggests the all consuming desire to collect any and all intelligence on everyone may have made it extremely difficult to, in the jargon of the counterterrorism experts, "connect the dots" to legitimate threats to our security:

The failure of U.S. authorities to detect a plot to bomb a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day has reignited long-simmering concerns that intelligence reforms implemented five years ago remain inadequate to prevent terrorist attacks. [...]

Ihe most intense scrutiny has been directed toward the centerpiece of the 2004 intelligence reorganization: the National Counterterrorism Center. [...]

As the central repository for "all-source" intelligence on international terrorism, the NCTC is tasked with connecting the dots and advising the government on threats. [...]

Several officials and experts said the failure to uncover the plot confirmed fears that the massive amounts of terrorism-related information being gathered since the 2001 attacks might outgrow the capacity to manage it. The CIA, the FBI, the military, and numerous Cabinet departments and independent agencies are flooded every day with new data from the field that is available to the NCTC.

"The single biggest worry that I have is long-term quality control," Russell E. Travers, in charge of the NCTC database of terrorism "entities," said in a 2007 interview as his list topped 400,000 and continued to expand. "Where am I going to be, where is my successor going to be, five years down the road?"

Travers is still there, and the database has grown to about 550,000. Beyond connecting the dots, "the challenge we now face is that we are collecting so much information," Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.) said last week of the system he helped devise as the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Yes, you heard that right. A senior Republican in Congress actually admitted that the reforms to our intelligence community which he "helped devise" may have made things worse. Of course back in 2004, Hoekstra wasn't just the "top Republican" on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, he was its Chairman. He rubber stamped whatever the Bush/Cheney White House wanted back then. Now he's having buyer's remorse apparently.

Well, I guess his statement is one small step toward accountability. Not much of one, but with Republicans, you take what you can get.

Some of the finger-pointing centers on claims and counterclaims about who should have flagged what for others to pay attention to and who should have looked where without being prompted. Travers, the TIDE chief who also serves as deputy director of the NCTC, predicted the problem even earlier than his 2007 expression of concern about the volume of terrorist information.

"If an organization posts something to its webpage, it can claim to have shared information,"he wrote in the forward to a 2005 book published by the Joint Military Intelligence College."Whether the right people know the information/analysis is there, and actually make use of it, is entirely another matter.

"Indeed, we'll almost certainly be dealing with precisely this problem in the post mortems of our next intelligence failure; the relevant intelligence will have been posted, but the right analysts never found it among the terabytes of available information."

That's correct folks, he said "terabytes" of information has been collected on God knows who about God knows what. So much information that the Intelligence community can't handle it all. I don't know how big a terabyte is, but these people do:

A terabyte is a SI-multiple (see prefix tera) of the unit byte for digital information storage and is equal to 1012 (1 trillion short scale) bytes or 1000 gigabytes. [...]

In standard SI usage, 1 terabyte (TB) equals 1000000000000bytes = 10004 or 1012 bytes.

To give you an example, the entire Library of Congress has collected 100 terabytes of data for its digital archive of Internet websites.

I'm just guessing here, but I bet the number of terabytes of data the NSA, CIA, DIA, ad nauseam , have collected far more than 100 terabytes of information. Indeed, according to this article, the NSA alone is constructing a facility in Nevade to store Yottabytes of surveillance information!

[T]he NSA is constructing a datacenter in the Utah desert that they project will be storing yottabytes of surveillance data. And what is a yottabyte? I’m glad you asked.

There are a thousand gigabytes in a terabyte, a thousand terabytes in a petabyte, a thousand petabytes in an exabyte, a thousand exabytes in a zettabyte, and a thousand zettabytes in a yottabyte. In other words, a yottabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000GB. Are you paranoid yet?

Heck, we know that AT&T alone was sued for allegedly collecting at least 312 terabytes of information for the NSA between 2001 and 2005 as part of the NSA's warrantless surveillance program. And that was just one tele-communications company.

The Salt Lake City Tribune ran an article back in October 2009 in which it openly questioned whether the information already collected by the various US intelligence communities was simply too extensive to be of any real benefit in identifying critical information in time to prevent threats to our security:

The enormity of information being collected by American spy agencies is staggering -- and there simply aren't enough human analysts to go around. [...]

[O]nly a very small slice of the information stored at the center in southern Salt Lake County will ever be scanned by human eyes. And that's the reality for most of what is collected by the nation's other spy agencies as well.

In a report commissioned by the Department of Defense last year, the Jason defense advisory group warned that the millions of terabytes of data coming into U.S. spy agencies through ever-improving sensors are being wasted.

"As the amount of data captured by these sensors grows, the difficulty in storing, analyzing, and fusing the sensor data becomes increasingly significant," the report concluded. It cited Massachusetts Institute of technology defense expert Pete Rustan, who complained that "70 percent of the data we collect is falling on the floor." [...]

That's a problem that Utah Guard commander Brian Tarbet is all too familiar with. [...]

"We simply vacuum up more information today," Tarbet said. "That's more information from which you have to separate the wheat from the chaff. But how much of that is good intelligence? That's the trick."

When your own experts are telling you that 70% of everything you collect is never going to be processed, read, understood, or examined, doesn't that suggest to you that our vast intelligence community is engaged in the greatest exercise in the theater of the absurd humankind has ever attempted?

So, in other words we (i.e., our Government) collect so much information that there is no way to discern what reliable, important data on terrorist threats is and what is merely random noise or garbage. To put it in blunter, less polite, terms, it’s hard to find a few valuable pearls when you spend all your time looking for them in an ocean of bullshit.

This is the system that Dick Cheney and his fellow Republican paranoids put in place. I don't think it takes a genius to realize that not only were these immense stores of often unconstitutionally information a dangerous violation of American civil liberties, but, in addition, they have made it more difficult to protect our nation from terrorist threats. So, the truth of the matter is that it isn't President Obama who is to blame for the failure of our intelligence community to identify one crazed jihadi recruit who attempted to down a plane by using a concoction of chemical explosives concealed in his pants. No, the fault lies with the very same Republican critics (most prominently Dick Cheney himself) who have been so quick to point the finger at a Democratic President rather than accept any responsibility for their own mad cap schemes to collect more and more data at the expense of taking advantage of the greatest resource we have available to quickly detect real threats to our national security: a human mind trained to know what is relevant information and what is not.

You can collect all the information you want these days thanks to technological advances in computer and telecommunications, but all that information is useless unless you have a process in place where trained individuals can have the means to both control what data gets collected (so that we don't simply amass a huge store of information that is primarily irrelevant) and the analytical skills necessary to effectively "connect the dots" in a timely manner to prevent terrorist threats. It's about time someone in the media pointed that fact out.