The Intercept, which originally published the Edward Snowden classified materials, appears to now be publishing materials from a new NSA leaker, and the results are disturbing. The leak involves the number of people on NSA watchlists, and reveals that the organization is tracking 280,000 people who have no terrorist affiliations. But why, and who are these people? So far, that information has not been forthcoming, and the agency certainly doesn’t plan on explaining itself. The number of people on the watchlist who have no terror affiliations is vastly larger than the number who do.
The documents obtained also reveal that the Obama Administration has engaged in a truly extraordinary expansion of the terrorist screening system. The no-fly list has exploded in numbers, along with the numbers of people caught in the watchlist net who apparently don’t belong there.
The classified documents were prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center, which is the primary agency responsible for tracking international terrorists–and, apparently, other people for unknown reasons, or possibly for no reason.
Officials don’t need any reason to put somebody on the watchlist, another abuse that is in urgent need of correction. According to documents published by the Intercept, they not only don’t need "irrefutable evidence" or even "concrete facts" to put somebody on the list, only what is defined as "reasonable suspicion." But apparently that is much more broadly defined than suspicion of terrorist affiliation, in that most of the people on the list are stated not to have any terror affiliation at all.
The Obama Administration, out of helplessness and fear, is casting such a broad net that it is, in effect, no net at all. Given the way that this system appears to be malfunctioning, it is all but certain that it will fail to detect real terrorists in time. It was in full operation during the Boston bombings in April of 2013, and didn’t even come close to preventing that disaster.
So what has it prevented? Anything? The government won’t say, which likely means that the answer is ‘nothing.’ And why would it? It’s a passive system that depends almost entirely on tracking internet activity. Terror groups can easily ‘game’ it, creating fake terrorists for it to follow, while they stay offline and communicate in other ways. In fact, it is as likely to be an impediment to effective investigation by wasting manpower and creating a false sense of security.
The president has said that his greatest fear is of a nuclear weapon being detonated in Manhattan. As Whitley Strieber has pointed out, an even greater fear should be the sudden destruction of Washington while all branches of the government are in session and the president is in the White House. But one thing is certainly true: planning for an act of nuclear terrorism is not going to be done online, by text, by email or even by telephone. In other words, it is going to be entirely invisible to this vast, essentially empty net.
What to do to prevent it? First, there must be much more concentration on tracking nuclear materials. Now that Russia has ceased to co-operate with the US in this effort, greater vigilance is essential. In addition, our ports must be effectively protected with detection devices and a much more aggressive onboard search program than is now in operation.
By placing all of its eggs in the internet basket, the NSA has all but guaranteed that we will be blindsided by the next terror attack, while at the same time spreading distrust of the government via its willingness to indiscriminately invade our privacy.
Read our online privacy Weekender to orient yourself about how to preserve your privacy while surfing the internet.