Tag: FBI

Event Monday: Is the FBI Creating Terrorist Plots to Stop Them?

This Monday at noon, Cato hosts “The Newburgh Sting and the FBI’s Production of the Domestic Terrorism Threat.” The event will consider how the FBI and others elements of our domestic security apparatus now generate a sense of the terrorist danger that they combat. David Heilbroner will show clips from his 2014 documentary on the Newburgh four terrorist case, which aired on HBO. Naureen Shah of Amnesty International and John Mueller of Cato and Ohio State will comment. RSVP here.

You can get a sense of the issue from this 2007 headline, from The Onion: “U.S. Counter-Counterterrorism Unit Successfully Destroys Washington Monument.” The counter-counterterrorism unit, the satirical article says, was “created in 2004 in response to the lack of terror activity since the Sept. 11 attacks,” and tasked with “raising awareness among the American public of the ‘myriad unknown threats’ that still face the country,” by demonstrating vulnerability to terrorism.

That’s make-believe, of course. No U.S. government agency has been bombing monuments, or anything else on U.S. soil. But still, like other good satire, the article gets at truth more effectively than conventional rendering of facts.

The standard view remains that the trauma of the September 11 attacks awakened Americans to their vulnerability to terrorism from without and within—terrorists groups overseas like al Qaeda and the “lone-wolf” self-starters they inspire. While our leaders, over the last decade, have become less prone to warn of imminent apocalyptic attacks, they still mostly contend that skilled terrorists lurk among us, evaluating our vulnerabilities, exploiting technologies and always growing more diabolical. That view, of course, is what justifies several of our ongoing military campaigns, various curtailments of civil liberties, and vast expenditures of our wealth for domestic security. Its proponents cite as evidence the terrorist plots found in the country since 2001.

The Defense of NSA Spying that Wasn’t

In an interview with CNN yesterday, outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller offered up words one could characterize as defending mass surveillance of all Americans’ phone calling. Indeed his interview has been portrayed as a defense of such spying, with outlets like NRO’s “The Corner” reporting “Outgoing FBI Chief: ‘Good Chance’ NSA Would Have Prevented ‘Part’ of 9/11.” But Director Mueller spoke much more equivocally than that.

Here’s what he actually said.

CNN: If we had the kind of intelligence that we were collecting through the NSA before September 11th, the kind of intelligence collection that we have now, do you think 9/11 would have been prevented?

MUELLER: I think there’s a good chance we would have prevented at least a part of 9/11. In other words, there were four planes. There were almost 20 — 19 persons involved. I think we would have had a much better chance of identifying those individuals who were contemplating that attack.

CNN: By this mass collection of information?

MUELLER: By the various programs that have been put in place since then. … It’s both the programs (under the Patriot Act) but also the ability to share the information that has made such dramatic change in our ability to identify and stop plots.

Mueller vaguely cited “various programs,” giving them a retroactive chance of preventing “a part of 9/11.” But even this defense of post-9/11 powers is insufficient.

In our 2006 paper, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining,” IBM scientist Jeff Jonas and I recounted the ease with which 9/11 attackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi could have been found had government investigators pursued them with alacrity. The 9/11 Commission said with respect to al-Mihdhar, “No one was looking for him.” Had they been caught and their associations examined, the 9/11 plot probably could have been rolled up. Sluggish investigation was a permissive factor in the 9/11 attacks, producing tragic results that nobody foresaw.

That absence of foresight is a twin with retrospective assessments like Mueller’s, which fail to account for the fact that nobody knew ahead of 9/11 what devastation might occur. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, everybody knew what such an attack could cause, and everybody began responding to the problem of terrorism.

Would Patriot Act programs have prevented at least a part of 9/11? Almost certainly not, given pre-9/11 perceptions that terrorism was at the low end of threats to safety and security. A dozen years since 9/11, terrorism is again at the low end of threats to safety and security because of multiplicitous efforts worldwide and among all segments of society. It is not Patriot Act programs and certainly not mass domestic surveillance that make us safe. Even Mueller didn’t defend NSA spying.

Ricin Suspect Used His Home to Elude Police

An interesting report from the Washington Post:

Dutschke went into hiding on Thursday to escape the media attention. The FBI and local law enforcement officials spent five hours hunting for him before his attorney revealed her client’s location.

Evidently, the attorney directed the police to her client’s home address.

James Everett Dutschke, 41, was taken into custody about 12:50 a.m. Saturday at his home in Tupelo, Miss., the FBI said.

According to the story, that’s the very same house the police searched earlier in the week. Note also the number of law enforcement agencies that were on the case:

Among the government agencies that joined the FBI in the investigation were the Secret Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Capitol Police, the counterterrorism section of the Justice Department’s national security division, the Mississippi National Guard, the Mississippi Office of Homeland Security and multiple county and city law enforcement units.

And they needed the attorney’s help to discover Dutschke at his home?  As Glenn Reynolds likes to say (in jest), “we’re in the very best hands.”

Policymakers might just want to take stuff like this into account when the agencies say their budgets can’t be cut and that their surveillance powers must be “enhanced.”

Three Lessons from the Increasingly Irrelevant Annual Wiretap Report

The 2011 Wiretap Report was released this weekend, providing an overview of how federal and state governments used wiretapping powers in criminal investigations. (Surveillance for intelligence purposes is covered in a separate, far less informative report.) There’s plenty of interesting detail, but here’s the bottom line:

After climbing 34 percent in 2010 the number of federal and state wiretaps reported in 2011 deceased 14 percent. A total of 2,732 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2011, with 792 authorized by federal judges and 1,940 authorized by state judges…. Compared to the numbers approved during 2010 the number of applications reported as approved by federal judges declined 34 percent in 2011, and the number of applications approved by state judges fell 2 percent. The reduction in wiretaps resulted primarily from a drop in applications for narcotics.

So is the government really spying on us less? Is the drug war cooling off? Well, no, that’s lesson number one: Government surveillance is now almost entirely off the books.

The trouble, as Andy Greenberg of Forbes explains, is that we’ve got analog reporting requirements in a digital age. The courts have to keep a tally of how often they approve traditional intercepts that are primarily used to pick up realtime phone conversationse—96 percent of all wiretap orders. But phone conversations represent an ever-dwindling proportion of modern communication, and police almost never use a traditional wiretap order to pick up digital conversations in realtime. Why would they? Realtime wiretap orders require jumping all sorts of legal hurdles that don’t apply to court orders for stored data, which is more convenient anyway, since it enables investigators to get a whole array of data, often spanning weeks or month, all at once. But nobody is required to compile data on those types of information requests, even though they’re often at least as intrusive as traditional wiretaps.

From what information we do have, however, it seems clear that phone taps are small beer compared to other forms of modern surveillance. As Greenberg notes, Verizon reported fielding more than 88,000 requests for data in 2006 alone. These would have ranged from traditional wiretaps, to demands for stored text messages and photos, to “pen registers” revealing a target’s calling patterns, to location tracking orders, to simple requests for a subscriber’s address or billing information. Google, which is virtually unique among major Internet services in voluntarily disclosing this sort of information, fielded 12,271 government requests for data, and complied with 11,412 of them. In other words, just one large company reports far more demands for user information than all the wiretaps issued last year combined. And again, that is without even factoring in the vast amount of intelligence surveillance that occurs each year: the thousands of FISA wiretaps, the tens of thousands of National Security Letters (which Google is forbidden to include in its public count) and the uncountably vast quantities of data vacuumed up by the NSA. At what point does the wiretap report, with its minuscule piece of the larger surveillance picture, just become a ridiculous, irrelevant formality?

Lesson two: The drug war accounts for almost all criminal wiretaps. Wiretaps may be down a bit in 2011, but over the long term they’ve still increased massively. Since 1997, even as communication has migrated from telephone networks to the internet on a mass scale, the annual number of wiretaps has more than doubled. And as this handy chart assembled by security researcher Chris Soghoian shows, our hopeless War on Drugs is driving almost all of it: for fully 85 percent of wiretaps last year, a drug offense was the most serious offense listed on the warrant application—compared with “only” 73 percent of wiretaps in 1997. Little surprise there: when you try to criminalize a transaction between a willing seller and a willing buyer, enforcement tends to require invasions of privacy. Oddly, law enforcement officials tend to gloss over these figures when asking legislators for greater surveillance authority. Perhaps citizens wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about approving these intrusive and expensive spying powers if they realized they were used almost exclusively to catch dope peddlers rather than murderers or kidnappers.

Speaking of dubious claims, lesson three: The encryption apocalypse is not nigh. As those of you who are both extremely nerdy and over 30 may recall, back in the 1990s we had something called the “Crypto Wars.” As far as the U.S. government was concerned, strong encryption technology was essentially a military weapon—not the sort of thing you wanted to allow in private hands, and certainly not something you could allow to be exported around the world. Law enforcement officials (and a few skittish academics) warned of looming anarchy unless the state cracked down hard on so-called “cypherpunks.” The FBI’s Advanced Telephony Unit issued a dire prediction in 1992 that within three years, they’d be unable to decipher 40 percent of the communications they intercepted.

Fortunately, they lost, and strong encryption in private hands has become the indispensable foundation of a thriving digital economy—and a vital shield for dissidents in repressive regimes. Frankly, it would probably have been worth the tradeoff even if the dire predictions had been right. But as computer scientist Matt Blaze observed back when the 2010 wiretap report was released, Ragnarok never quite arrives. The latest numbers show that investigators encountered encryption exactly 12 times in all those thousands of wiretaps. And how many times did that encryption prevent them from accessing the communication in question? Zero. Not once.

Now, to be sure, precisely because police seldom use wiretap orders for e-mail, that’s also a highly incomplete picture of the cases where investigations run up against encryption walls. But as the FBI once again issues panicked warnings that they’re “going dark” and demands that online companies be requried to compromise security by building surveillance backdoors into their services, it’s worth recalling that we’ve heard this particular wolf cry before. It would have been a disastrous mistake to heed it back then, and on the conspicuously scanty evidence being offered during the encore, it would be crazy to approach these renewed demands with anything less than a metric ton of salt.

A Scary Thought: Do We Really Need “If You See Something, Say Something?”

At the National Sheriffs’ Association Conference in Washington last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano noted that riders on the DC Metro system can hear her voice repeatedly promoting her department’s “If You See Something, Say Something” terrorism hotline campaign. “That’s a scary thought,” she suggested.

Even scarier to me is the campaign itself.

It was begun in New York City where it generated 8,999 calls in 2006 and more than 13,473 in 2007. Although the usual approach of the media is to report about such measures uncritically, one New York Times reporter at the time did have the temerity to ask how many of these tips had actually led to a terrorism arrest. The answer, it turned out, was zero.

That continues to be the case, it appears: none of the much-publicized terrorism arrests in New York since that time has been impelled by a “If You See Something, Say Something” tip.

This experience could be taken to suggest that the tipster campaign has been something of a failure. Or perhaps it suggests there isn’t all that much out there to be found. Undeterred by such dark possibilities, however, the campaign continues, and the number of calls in New York skyrocketed to 27,127 in 2008 before settling down a bit to a mere 16,191 in 2009.

For its part, the FBI celebrated the receipt of its 2 millionth tip from the public, up to a third of them concerning terrorism, in August 2008. There seems to be no public information on whether the terrorism tips proved more useful than those supplied to the New York City police. However, an examination of all known terrorism cases since 9/11 that have targeted the United States suggests that the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign has never been relevant.

It turns out that New York has received a trademark on its snappy slogan, something Napolitano’s DHS dutifully acknowledges on its relevant website when it refers to its public awareness campaign as: “If You See Something, Say Something&™.” (Nowhere on the website, by the way, does the Department bother to tally either the number of calls it receives or the number of terrorism arrests the hotline has led to.)

New York has been willing to grant permission for the slogan to be used by organizations like DHS, but sometimes it has refused permission because, according to a spokesman, “The intent of the slogan is to focus on terrorism activity, not crime, and we felt that use in other spheres would water down its effectiveness.” Since it appears that the slogan has been completely ineffective at dealing with its supposed focus—terrorism—any watering down would appear, not to put too fine a point on it, to be impossible.

Meanwhile, in New York alone $2 million to $3 million each year (much of it coming from grants from the federal government) continues to be paid out to promote and publicize the hotline.

But that’s hardly the full price of the program. As Mark Stewart and I have noted in our Terror, Security, and Money, processing the tips can be costly because, as the FBI’s special counsel puts it, “Any terrorism lead has to be followed up. That means, on a practical level, that things that 10 years ago might just have been ignored now have to be followed up.” Says the assistant section chief for the FBI’s National Threat Center portentously, “It’s the one that you don’t take seriously that becomes the 9/11.”

It might seem obvious that any value of the “If You See Something, Say Something™” campaign needs to be weighted against the rather significant attendant costs of sorting through the haystack of tips it generates. Of course, the campaign might fail a cost-benefit analysis because it is expensive and seems to have generated no benefit (except perhaps for bolstering support for homeland security spending by continually reminding an edgy public that terrorism might still be out there).

This grim possibility may be why, as far as I can see, no one has ever carried out such a study and that the prospect of doing one has probably never crossed the minds of sloganeer Napolitano or of the rapt sheriffs in her audience.

Now that’s a scary thought.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Wittgenstein, Private Language, and Secret Law

One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right.’ — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §258

Among the arguments for which the great 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is famous, perhaps the best known—and most controversial—is his argument for the impossibility of a truly “private language.” Since Wittgenstein’s own language was, if not quite “private,” notoriously opaque, it’s a matter of some controversy exactly what the argument is, but here’s a very crude summary of one common interpretation:

Language is, by it’s nature, a rule-governed enterprise. Under normal circumstances, for instance, I use words correctly when I say “there’s a yellow school bus outside,” just in case there is a yellow school bus outside. If, instead, there’s a blue Prius, then I may be lying, or trying to make some sort of signally unfunny joke, or confused about either the facts or about what words mean—but I am, one way or another, using the words “incorrectly.” And indeed, the only way words like “yellow” and “school bus” can have any specific meaning is if they’re correctly applied to some things, but not to others.

Now suppose I decide to invent my own private language, meant to describe my own internal sensations and mental states, maybe for the purpose of recording them in a personal diary. On the first day, I experience a particular sensation I decide to call “S,” and record in my diary: “Today I felt S.” As time passes, on some days I write S to describe my private sensations, and on other days maybe I come up with different labels—maybe T, U, and V. This certainly looks like a private language, but there’s a problem: each time I write down “S,” the idea is suppose to be that I’m recording that I had the same sensation I had the first day—S—and not T, U, or V. But what’s the criteria for “the same”? What makes it true that my sensation on day 27 really is “more like” the sensation S that I had on day 1, and not V, which I first had on day 16? How do I know that this new sensation is really an S and not a V? (Say S was an itch in my hand; will I be correct to use S to refer to an itch in my shoulder? Or a pain in my hand? Or for that matter a pain in my shoulder?) The only criterion is that it seems or feels that way to me. But in that case, I’m not really engaged in a rule-governed language system at all, because in effect S applies to whatever I decide it does. Since I can never really be wrong, it doesn’t really make sense to say I’m ever right in my use either. Since the terms are truly private, there’s no difference between “correctly applying S” and “specifying in greater detail what S means.” What looked like a “private language” was actually just a kind of pantomime of a true, rule-governed language.

I found myself thinking of Wittgenstein and his private language argument, oddly enough, when thinking about the various forms of “secret law” and “secret legal interpretations” that increasingly govern our endless War on Terror. Consider, for instance, the secret legal memorandum justifying the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, discussed in an October 8 New York Times piece:

The legal analysis, in essence, concluded that Mr. Awlaki could be legally killed, if it was not feasible to capture him, because intelligence agencies said he was taking part in the war between the United States and Al Qaeda and posed a significant threat to Americans, as well as because Yemeni authorities were unable or unwilling to stop him.

Whether or not one agrees with the substantive principle articulated here, this at least sounds like a real rule limiting the discretion of the executive. Except…who decides when a capture is “not feasible” (as opposed to merely risky, costly, or inconvenient)? The same executive who is meant to apply and be bound by the rule. Who determines when the threat posed by a citizen is “significant” enough to permit targeting? Again, the executive.

This is not, one might object, a wholly “private” interpretive problem, because the Office of Legal Counsel provides some kind of quasi-independent check: it will occasionally tell even a president that what he wants to do isn’t legal. But in that case, the president can simply do what Barack Obama did in the case of his intervention in Libya: keep asking different legal advisers until one of them gives you the answer you want, then decide that the more favorable opinion overrides whatever OLC had concluded.

Similar considerations apply to the “secret law” of surveillance. The FBI may issue National Security Letters for certain specific types of records—including “toll billing records”—without judicial approval, but these secret demands must at least be “relevant to an authorized investigation.” A weak limit, we might think, but at least a limit. Yet, again, the apparent limitation is illusory: it is the Justice Department itself that determines what may count as an “authorized investigation.” When Congress initially passed the Patriot Act a decade ago, an “authorized investigation” meant a “full investigation” predicated on some kind of real evidence of wrongdoing. Just a few years later, though, the attorney general’s guidelines were changed to permit their use in much more speculative “preliminary investigations,” and soon enough, the majority of NSLs were being used in such preliminary investigations. Needless to say, “relevance” too is very much in the eye of the beholder.

In most of these cases, the prospects for external limitation are slim. First, of course, anyone who disagreed with the executive’s secret interpretation would have to find out about it—which may happen only years after the fact in whatever unknowable percentage of cases it ever happens at all. Then they’d have to overcome the extraordinary deference of our court system to assertions of the State Secrets Privilege just to be able to have a court consider whether the government had acted illegally. In practice, then, the executive is defining the terms of, and interpreting, the same rules that supposedly bind it.

The usual thing to say about this scenario is that it shows the importance of checks and balances in preventing the law from being perverted or abused. If we think there is at least a rough analogy between these cases and Wittgenstein’s diarist writing in a “private language,” though, we’ll see that this doesn’t go quite far enough. What we should say, rather, is that these are cases where “secret law,” like “private language” is not merely practically dangerous but conceptually incoherent. They are not genuine cases of “legal interpretation” at all, but only a kind of pantomime. Perhaps what we should say in these cases is not that the president or the executive branch may have violated the law—as though there were still, in general, some background binding principles—but that in these institutional contexts one simply cannot speak of actions as “in accordance with” or “contrary to” the law at all.  Where the possibility of external correction is foreclosed, the objectionable and unobjectionable decisions alike are, inherently, lawless.

Wanna-be Mass. Terrorist Incompetent, Lacked Resources

The media has again provided us with a breathless report of a terror plot. This time it’s a 26 year-old Massachusetts man, Rezwan Ferdaus, who planned to fill three remote controlled airplanes with explosives and then fly them into the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.

Ferdaus’s accomplices were FBI agents. As with many past cases, the FBI agents were crucial to his plot. Without the FBI’s men, money, and “explosives,” there is very little chance that Ferdaus could have successfully committed an act of terrorism.

Ferdaus, broke and living with his parents, had a plan that should make us question his mental competence. He planned to fly two remote-controlled airplanes, each packed with five pounds of explosives, into the Pentagon using GPS-guidance, and another similarly loaded plane into the U.S. Capitol’s dome, which he apparently thought would cave in. Following that, he would somehow destroy the bridges at the Pentagon complex and a six-man team armed with AK-47s would attack the complex. Whom he would recruit with the ability to launch such an audacious assault is not clear. The affidavit never identifies a non-FBI accomplice. At one point, Ferdaus says that he told a friend about his idea, but that his friend declined to participate and suggested that it would be easier to shoot up a military recruitment center. So, absent FBI assistance, Ferdaus’s plan would have been impossible until he had found several more willing participants.

Another impediment was money. Ferdaus purchased only one of the remote control planes for a total of $7,500, which was provided by the FBI. He needed several thousand dollars more to buy the other two. Ferdaus even needed the FBI’s help to pay the $450 fee for a rental facility where he planned to store his material and construct his bombs.

Even if Ferdaus had succeeded in finding others and buying the planes and other necessary electronics, he would still have needed to create a proper explosive that could be detonated at precisely the right time. He initially planned to use several grenades that would have had their pins pulled exactly three seconds before impact using a “detonation servo” device. He later decided to use “plastic explosives,” or C-4, as long as it was “obtainable.” As directed, the FBI undercover agents provided him with 25 pounds of C-4, only 1.25 pounds of which was real. They also delivered six fully-automatic AK-47s.

Wanna-be terrorists face numerous obstacles to success, starting with their own incompetence. We should applaud the FBI’s investigative zeal but keep in mind that without them, Ferdaus probably wouldn’t have launched an attack, let alone succeeded in it. Here we have a ”Darwin Award nominee,” not the hypercompetent home-grown terrorist the authorities keep telling us to expect. Saying so is a way to avoid being terrorized.

 

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