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The Bloated National Surveillance State Folds In On Itself

National security advisor James Jones told the USA Today that the initial review of the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 will give Americans “a certain shock.”

The shock that Jones is referring to may come from the fact that US officials apparently knew about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab while the Amsterdam-to-Detroit plane was in the air, and they planned to question him as he came off the plane.

U.S. border security officials learned of the alleged extremist links of the suspect in the Christmas Day jetliner bombing attempt as he was airborne from Amsterdam to Detroit and had decided to question him when he landed, officials disclosed Wednesday.

The new information shows that border enforcement officials discovered the suspected extremist ties involving the Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in a database despite intelligence failures that have been criticized by President Obama.

“The people in Detroit were prepared to look at him in secondary inspection,” a senior law enforcement official said. “The decision had been made. The [database] had picked up the State Department concern about this guy — that this guy may have been involved with extremist elements in Yemen.”

This certainly suggests, as the White House has been making plain, that there was enough information collected to target Abdulmutallab as a potential threat, and that it could have been used to keep him off that flight. But later in that story, Administration officials acknowledge that the information gleaned about the suspect would not have risen to the level of putting Abdulmutallab on a no-fly list, under current policy.

The threshold for requiring a foreign visitor to undergo special scrutiny upon arrival in the U.S. is considerably lower than criteria for stopping a passenger’s departure overseas, according to current and former law enforcement officials. That is why border security agencies rely heavily on terrorism watch lists of suspects seen as urgent threats, officials said.

“The public isn’t aware how many people are allowed to travel through the U.S., who are linked, who intersect with bad guys or alleged bad guys,” a national security official said. “It makes sense from an intelligence perspective. If they are not considered dangerous, it provides intelligence on where they go, who they meet with.”

Indeed, Customs and Border personnel operate under a different mandate than the National Counter-Terrorism Center, which controls the no-fly list. Current rules would not have caught Abdulmutallab given that profile. New rules would have to be implemented. And those new rules will have consequences for intelligence-gathering.

Regardless of where fault is ultimately assessed, 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?”

This is precisely what Glenn Greenwald said yesterday in an excellent post, explaining how the accumulation of intelligence through massive surveillance has actually made America MORE vulnerable to terrorism:

As President Obama said yesterday, the Government — just as was true for 9/11 — had gathered more than enough information to have detected this plot, or at least to have kept Abdulmutallab off airplanes and out of the country. Yet our intelligence agencies — just as was true for 9/11 — failed to understand what they had in their possession. Why is that? Because they had too much to process, including too much data wholly unrelated to Terrorism. In other words, our panic-driven need to vest the Government with more and more surveillance power every time we get scared again by Terrorists — in the name of keeping us safe — has exactly the opposite effect. Numerous pieces of evidence prove that.

This was true for the Nidal Hassan shooting incident at Fort Hood, according to Jones’ interview with USA Today, and it was true of the failed Christmas bombing. And yet the reaction is seemingly to collect MORE intelligence, to connect MORE dots, to profile MORE passengers, to act like intelligence is some perfect science where every threat can be analyzed and assessed with 100% accuracy. The surveillance state is simply too bloated to even function properly, and it’s the constant fear-based reaction which has facilitated that bloat.

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David Dayen

David Dayen