David R. Henderson  

NSA Surveillance: More Hay and More "Hey!"

U.S. Foreign Policy: The Swiss... Happy Birthday, Taylor Grace C...

In a post earlier this week, "NSA Surveillance: A Cost/Benefit Analysis," I quoted John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart's statement, "However, the reaction has continually been to expand the enterprise, searching for the needle by adding more and more hay." It turns out that one of the snoops, who became a whistle-blower in 2008, made that same point.

Here are two excerpts from an ABC news story done by Brian Ross. Excerpt one:

"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA's Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.

Kinne described the contents of the calls as "personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism."

Here's where Ms. Kinne makes the haystack point:
"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," she said.

Another intercept operator, former Navy Arab linguist, David Murfee Faulk, 39, said he and his fellow intercept operators listened into hundreds of Americans picked up using phones in Baghdad's Green Zone from late 2003 to November 2007.

"Calling home to the United States, talking to their spouses, sometimes their girlfriends, sometimes one phone call following another," said Faulk.

Faulk elaborated:
"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News.

By contrast, Roger Pilon and Richard A. Epstein recently wrote:
Yes, government officials might conceivably misuse some of the trillions of bits of metadata they examine using sophisticated algorithms. But one abuse is no pattern of abuses. And even one abuse is not likely to happen given the safeguards in place. The cumulative weight of the evidence attests to the soundness of the program. The critics would be more credible if they could identify a pattern of government abuses. But after 12 years of continuous practice, they can't cite even a single case. We should be thankful that here, at least, government has done its job and done it well.

Were Epstein and Pilon unaware of these abuses? They appear to be more than "a single case." Will Roger and Richard issue a retraction?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)

Aren't we forgetting to acknowledge this;

Some times, Kinne and Faulk said, the intercepts helped identify possible terror planning in Iraq and saved American lives.
"IED's were disarmed before they exploded, that people who were intending to harm US forces were captured ahead of time," Faulk said.

And, since the ABC story is from 2008, why is it news now?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Patrick R. Sullivan,
Aren't we forgetting to acknowledge this
I wasn't forgetting. I was pointing out evidence about "hay" and evidence that contradicts Roger's and Richard's assertion.
And, since the ABC story is from 2008, why is it news now?
The obvious answer is that it contradicts Roger's and Richard's assertion. Patrick, if I hadn't seen so many judicious comments from you over the years, I would think that your "there is no news here" assertion was your tryout for taking Jay Carney's place.

rapscallion writes:

Who's going to report abuses when doing so means having to move to Hong Kong and mysteriously disappearing?

Where's the abuse? The benefits of the program are clear; American lives saved. The costs seem trivial, contrary to ABC's spin. How many Arabic speaking Americans calling into a war zone had their privacy violated? Surely a trivial number.

And probably to little impact on their lives, if they really aren't terrorists. Which, contrary to assertions made, the young American couldn't have known anyway.

Tom West writes:

I second rapscallion's point. To put it more pointedly - just because the Mafia is very good at killing the witnesses is no reason to assume that Mafia isn't committing any crimes.

MikeP writes:

The benefits of the program are clear; American lives saved.

You are highlighting the exception that proves the rule.

How many American lives were saved due to eavesdropping on conversations between Americans and Americans? I am going to bet the answer is exactly zero.

The point of their statements is that they were there to do useful work. But any of their time listening to employees, contractors, and aid workers was utterly wasted and kept them from listening to people who actually had a nonzero probability of being dangerous.

I found that argument to be extremely illogical, and/or naive. How do they know that no terrorists had infiltrated international aid organizations? Or, even, the American military? Clearly, some have.

What percentage of the info gained from tapping John Gotti's phone conversations do you suppose was unconnected to criminal behavior? I'll bet it was well over 90%. What percentage of a beat cop's observations result in arrests for criminal behavior? Again, probably very little.

These two MILITARY intelligence people ABC promoted were in Iraq at the worst of the fighting. They were Arabic speakers for a reason.

MikeP writes:

Naive is not reconsidering your priors when they are proven wrong. It's a simple experiment: Did eavesdropping on Americans save a single American life?

If it requires doubling the effort to eavesdrop on Americans, and that nets you 0% or 1% or even 10% more intelligence, you will probably do better if you instead double the effort on the original targets of the eavesdropping.

Excuse me? The ABC story clearly says IED attacks were prevented. The purpose of the program.

MikeP writes:

Do you not know what "happened to" means?

"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones,"

One would think that if actually listening to actual Americans actually saved an American life, it would have been mentioned. It's not, which very strongly implies that the program gained intelligence from the people it targeted and that those Americans who happened to be eavesdropped on simply because they happened to use the same phone circuits as the targeted people provided nothing useful.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top