Monday, September 30, 2013


During the Iraq War, I noted that one of our means of success was mapping the "human terrain" of the Sunni Arab insurgencies so that we could break them apart. So guess what the NSA has been doing?

Having war plans in a file just in case is pretty common. No matter how unlikely, somebody probably looked at the issue.

As the Iraq War was being won using the knowledge of human terrain--who is related to who (by whatever blood, social, religious, or ideological ties) in a region--I speculated that in an age of Islamist insurgencies and terrorism, mapping the human terrain of potential war zones would be useful in case we found ourselves in a fight in one of them:

Instead of drawing up nice plans of governing structures and new roads, why don't we spend our pre-war preparation time building up similar databases of leaders and groups in the target nation? This might be a good task for the CIA and other intelligence agencies to focus on, building on those country studies.

Such detailed knowledge of the society and political elites of a potential enemy would be useful for a lot more than just suppressing an insurgency. We could use it to target sanctions, foster a revolt or revolution, or sow dissent and suspicion among the ruling elites.

Six years later, Instapundit notes an NSA project:

Since 2010, the National Security Agency has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with officials.

NSA defends their human terrain analysis as focused on foreign threats despite the domestic component:

“All of N.S.A.’s work has a foreign intelligence purpose,” the spokeswoman added. “Our activities are centered on counterterrorism, counterproliferation and cybersecurity.”

What does "centered on" mean? That doesn't sound like a synonym for "solely" does it?

I remain conflicted on the NSA program. In theory we need to do it. And metadata is legally separate from the actual data of communications content. Although modern computing power makes that data far more useful to good guys and bad guys since that distinction was set by our court system.

Besides, who can blame President Obama for not wanting to make every effort to find terrorists given how Democrats hammered President Bush over and over for failing to "connect the dots" to prevent 9/11?

But the theoretical need for such a program collides with the practical problems of conducting a foreign intelligence program without it expanding--wittingly or unwittingly--into domestic surveillance. Nor does it answer questions of how the data is preserved from abuse by simply aggressive but honest employees or just crooks or rogue employees (rogue as an organization or in part). Well what do you know?

On September 18 USA Today, in a front page story, reported the following: "Newly uncovered IRS documents show the agency flagged political groups based on the content of their literature, raising concerns specifically about 'anti-Obama rhetoric,' inflammatory language and 'emotional' statements made by non-profits seeking tax-exempt status."

That's aside from the article's focus on the failure of the big networks to even cover that story. Remember that there are stories out there about domestic criminal prosecutions made possible by national security surveillance programs that were not revealed as sources of evidence. Is that where we are going? Do we really want to go that way?

And how is the data secured against foreign intelligence agencies who might want their own human terrain analysis of America? In battle, the saying goes, you seize the high ground. That applies to human terrain, too, no?

As I've droned on about for years on occasion, failure to fight this war aggressively to actually win it is a threat to our civil liberties. Every time a terrorist gets through--or almost does--we ratchet up the laws that restrict our freedoms in order to stop the terrorists.

And no, declaring that the tide of war is receding and deciding not to fight the war abroad doesn't count as victory.

As long as our enemies are nutball jihadi fanatics, the war will go on regardless of whether we are tired of fighting. The enemy doesn't care that we've been fighting for more than a decade. And if we don't fight the enemy over there, we'll fight them more over here--including with programs that infringe on our freedoms.

Right now I'm still conflicted about the program because I'm still not sure how to balance the need to find terrorists against any deliberate or accidental abuse of surveillance powers.

But I am sure that the longer these programs go on the higher the odds that our freedoms will be abused routinely will become. It may be our government, individuals, governmental or private groups, criminal gangs, or even foreign countries.

We can see our future from here. I don't doubt that. We surely need to have a thorough review of our surveillance programs and laws to make sure that they do not violate our civil liberties or that they do not have the potential to easily become an assault on our civil liberties.