Every day, [NSA intercepts and stores] 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications
Here is [Arkin and Priest's] first sentence: "The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work." This all "amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight." We chirp endlessly about the Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Democrats and Republicans, but this is the Real U.S. Government: functioning in total darkness, beyond elections and parties, so secret, vast and powerful that it evades the control or knowledge of any one person or even any organization.the 4th amendment...? how quaint... Submit To Propeller
Anyone who thinks that's hyperbole should just read some of what Priest and Arkin chronicle. Consider this: "Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications." To call that an out-of-control, privacy-destroying Surveillance State is to understate the case. Equally understated is the observation that we have become a militarized nation living under an omnipotent, self-perpetuating, bankrupting National Security State. Here's but one flavoring anecdote:
Command centers, internal television networks, video walls, armored SUVs and personal security guards have also become the bling of national security.
"You can't find a four-star general without a security detail," said one three-star general now posted in Washington after years abroad. "Fear has caused everyone to have stuff. Then comes, 'If he has one, then I have to have one.' It's become a status symbol."
What's most noteworthy about all of this is that the objective endlessly invoked for why we must acquiesce to all of this -- National Security -- is not only unfulfilled by "Top Secret America," but actively subverted by it. During the FISA debate of 2008 -- when Democrats and Republicans joined together to legalize the Bush/Cheney warrantless eavesdropping program and vastly expand the NSA's authority to spy on the communications of Americans without judicial oversight -- it was constantly claimed that the Government must have greater domestic surveillance powers in order to Keep Us Safe. Thus, anyone who opposed the new spying law was accused of excessively valuing privacy and civil liberties at the expense of what, we are always told, matters most: Staying Safe.
But as I wrote many times back then -- often by interviewing and otherwise citing House Intelligence Committee member Rush Holt, who has been making this point repeatedly -- the more secret surveillance powers we vest in the Government, the more we allow the unchecked Surveillance State to grow, the more unsafe we become. That's because the public-private axis that is the Surveillance State already collects so much information about us, our activities and our communications -- so indiscriminately and on such a vast scale -- that it cannot possibly detect any actual national security threats. NSA whistle blower Adrienne Kinne, when exposing NSA eavesdropping abuses, warned of what ABC News described as "the waste of time spent listening to innocent Americans, instead of looking for the terrorist needle in the haystack." As Kinne put it:
By casting the net so wide and continuing to collect on Americans and aid organizations, it's almost like they're making the haystack bigger and it's harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody. You're actually hurting our ability to effectively protect our national security.
The Government did not fail to detect the 9/11 attacks because it was unable to collect information relating to the plot. It did collect exactly that, but because it surveilled so much information, it was incapable of recognizing what it possessed ("connecting the dots"). Despite that, we have since then continuously expanded the Government's surveillance powers. Virtually every time the political class reveals some Scary New Event, it demands and obtains greater spying authorities (and, of course, more and more money). And each time that happens, its ability to detect actually relevant threats diminishes. As Priest and Arkin write:
The NSA sorts a fraction of those [1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of daily collected communications] into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.
The article details how ample information regarding alleged Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hassan and attempted Christmas Day bomber Umar Abdulmutallab was collected but simply went unrecognized. As a result, our vaunted Surveillance State failed to stop the former attack and it was only an alert airplane passenger who thwarted the latter. So it isn't that we keep sacrificing our privacy to an always-growing National Security State in exchange for greater security. The opposite is true: we keep sacrificing our privacy to the always-growing National Security State in exchange for less security.