OP-ED By Robert Baer≈
Former CIA Middle East Case Officer≈
Since the tragic events of 9/11, the U.S. government has been collecting vast amounts of information through domestic surveillance of its citizens. These mountains of metadata have compromised the basic freedoms of Americans but have not helped the National Security Agency (NSA) predict a single terrorist plot against the United States.
It’s a sorry saga and its latest chapter concerns the recent revelations about PRISM – a massive clandestine surveillance program run by the National Security Agency. NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed that, under PRISM, wireless operator Verizon was being forced to turn over metadata to the NSA concerning all calls made by its customers.
While the public may have been shocked by this news, I wasn’t. As Time.com’s intelligence columnist and a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) case officer, I have often talked to people in government who have pointed to my iPhone and said, “Anything that goes across that phone – whether it’s e-mail, calls, metadata, or Skype – can be intercepted by the government.” They didn’t talk about PRISM, of course, but the message was clear.
One aspect of PRISM does shock me, though: the fact that it involves search and seizure without a warrant. I know several cases in which the Department of Justice has accessed the metadata of a reporter to find out who his or her sources are. After that, it has trolled metadata about the sources to see if it can come up with enough evidence to justify investigating them.
You might think that if you’re a law-abiding citizen, you have nothing to fear from all this. If so, think again.
The people who work for the government don’t always obey the law. The opportunities for abuse are rife – getting into your Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax data, for instance, or checking out your text messages. The government could destroy the reputation of an opposition politician with this kind of information. Remember Watergate and then ask yourself whether it’s a good idea to give people who aren’t exactly honest the tools to ruin others.
There is, quite frankly, no need for this level of surveillance. To justify it, Washington often tells us that Najibullah Zazi, a member of an al-Qaeda group that was accused of plotting to bomb the New York City subway in 2009, was caught as a result of information obtained through PRISM. That’s not true. British authorities were led to Zazi, and then told Washington. The United States examined the metadata and found evidence to continue the investigation. Without the tip-off, though, it would have been in the dark.
Washington is simply overdramatizing the value of this type of information. I haven’t heard of any program like PRISM that has prompted an investigation that stopped people from being killed.
Take the case of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who died in a car-bomb blast in 2005. After the assassination, investigators trolled the data and found there were eight suspicious phone calls around the time of his death. But they only found the evidence after the fact. They weren’t able to anticipate the murder – there’s simply too much data to examine unless you can narrow it down somehow.
The CIA didn’t use data mining to catch Osama bin Laden – it caught him by using human sources and exploiting human weaknesses. It focused on the problem and brought all its resources into play. It forced other governments to act, including that of Pakistan. That’s how it succeeded.
With programs like PRISM, we’re using a sledgehammer to crack a pebble. The threat of terrorism from the Muslim world has been hugely overplayed. We thought our world was caving in after 9/11. We wondered where the next attack would come from. We pictured terrorists setting off bombs in malls. It just hasn’t happened – except for Boston, which was a weird anomaly.
Meanwhile, Washington continues to gaze into the NSA’s cracked crystal ball. If there’s one thing the Bradley Manning case revealed, it’s the shockingly superficial nature of information being gleaned by the U.S. government. Essentially, we’re blind. And the more we stumble blindly around the world, the more damage we do – and the more enemies we make.
Robert Baer is a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) case officer of over 20 years. He’s currently Time.com’s intelligence columnist.