Clapper: The Attacks We Didn't Prevent In The Past Can't Be Prevented In The Future If Section 215 Is Allowed To Die

from the faith-based-surveillance dept

Over a decade has passed since the 9/11 attacks, and the intelligence community still won’t let the attack it didn’t prevent be laid to rest. It is exhumed over and over again — its tattered remains waved in front of legislators and the public, accompanied by shouts of, “YOU SEE THIS?!? THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DON’T GET OUR WAY!”

It’s grotesque and ghastly and — quite frankly — more than a little tiresome. The NSA’s Section 215 program is set to expire on June 1st and James Clapper is making statements in its defense — statements that read like someone attempting to sound more disappointed than angry. But this is James Clapper speaking, and all prior evidence points to him being unwilling to make any concessions on the domestic surveillance front.

Here’s what he had to say about the impending death of the bulk phone records collection:

“In the end, the Congress giveth and the Congress taketh away,” he said. “If the Congress, in its wisdom, decides the candle isn’t worth the flame, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, whatever metaphor you want to use, that’s fine.”

“The intelligence community will do all we can within the law to do what we can to protect the country. I have to say that every time we lose another tool in our toolkit, it raises the risk,” he added. “If that tool is taken away from us, 215, and, some untoward incident happens which should have been thwarted had we had it, I hope everyone involved in that decision assumes the responsibility and it not be blamed, if we have another failure, exclusively on the intelligence community.”

The subtext is clear and Jason Koebler at Vice spells it out succinctly: Kill Section 215, but don’t blame us if another 9/11 happens.

The intelligence community continues to argue — without evidence — that the program has aided in combating terrorism. It can’t say how or offer any details as to attacks thwarted, but it makes the assertion all the same. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) has access to intelligence documents most Americans will never see and yet it came to this conclusion: the bulk records program is both useless and a violation of civil liberties.

Clapper’s defense of the program seems to be faith-based. In a single clumsy metaphor, Clapper summons the spirit of two Simpsons characters.

“215, to me, is much like my fire insurance policy for my home,” he said. “The house never burns down, but I buy fire insurance, just in case.”

Lisa Simpson argued against Homer’s specious “bear patrol” reasoning by claiming a rock she found on the ground could keep tigers away — noting that the lack of nearby tigers “proved” the rock worked. This is Clapper’s sales pitch: the lack of another 9/11 attack is “proof” the program is necessary. Well, we haven’t had a Summer Olympics hosted in this country since 1996, so it could also be claimed that Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act has been instrumental in preventing the US from hosting this extremely destructive parasite momentous event. After all, the roots of Section 215 also trace back to a 1990s partnership between the NSA and DEA to collect phone records on calls to foreign countries originating in the US.

Ned Flanders — perhaps the most upstanding (and naïve) Springfieldian — notably considered insurance coverage to be a form of gambling. Clapper’s “gamble” — his supposed “insurance” — bets on surveillance state wins while putting Americans’ privacy up as collateral. Even when viewed through Clapper’s twisted perspective, the metaphor fails.

The difference here, is that the NSA’s “insurance” is intrusive information on just about every citizen in the United States, regardless of whether or not they’ve done anything wrong.

The defenders of the surveillance framework always point to attacks they didn’t prevent (like the Boston Bombing) as justification for intrusive spy programs. That argument alone should be greeted with riotous, disbelieving laughter. But they press this even further, giving themselves credit for every lull between major attacks and ignoring every report or investigation that shows their favorite programs do little more than make the job of counterterrorism more difficult.

Clapper seems to believe the death of the Section 215 program will be the death of us all. It’s an absurd belief. Unfortunately, it’s shared by far too many of those in the position to prevent its expiration.

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Comments on “Clapper: The Attacks We Didn't Prevent In The Past Can't Be Prevented In The Future If Section 215 Is Allowed To Die”

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51 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

More effective than you may think

“If that tool is taken away from us, 215, and, some untoward incident happens which should have been thwarted had we had it, I hope everyone involved in that decision assumes the responsibility and it not be blamed, if we have another failure, exclusively on the intelligence community.”

That statement is a not so subtle ‘hint’ that if the politicians take away a tool, any tool from the spy agencies, then if something ever happens, they might end up getting blamed for it(never mind that that would happen no matter what they did or did not do).

Politicians are extremely risk averse, and as such will almost always take the ‘better safe than sorry’ route in order to minimze risk to themselves, and their ability to get re-elected, and as a result almost none of them would be willing to risk opening themselves up to the accusation that they let [random violent attack or event] happen by taking away the tools that might have prevented it from the spy agencies.

Clapper’s argument, the idea that despite the fact that his precious spying has accomplished nothing beneficial to the public, it should still remain just in case, may seem incredibly stupid to a member of the public, but to a politician I imagine it’s quite persuasive.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: More effective than you may think

“If that tool is taken away from us, 215, and, some untoward incident happens which should have been thwarted had we had it,

The onus would be on him to show HOW the tool would have prevented the attack.

So far none of the failures to prevent attacks have been traceable to a lack of security tools that increase the available data. In fact they have almost always been traceable to a lack of ability to discriminate relevant information from the large haystack of data that they already have.

In the absence of a demonstrable mechanism his argument becomes analogous to the kind of superstition that sportsmen often display. “When I won last time I tied may left shoelace first – if I tie my right shoelace first next time I will lose”.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: More effective than you may think

“The onus would be on him to show HOW the tool would have prevented the attack.”

No the onus should be on him. Politicians aren’t nearly as logical as they should be.

What the recent revelations and eventual reactions has taught me is that US citizens are slow to wake, but they do wake. The politicians should realize that they are going to get the blame no matter what. Do they want the inevitable blame for killing the Constitution, or do they want to protect our rights and potentially take the blame for removing a tool that probably wouldn’t have worked anyways.

TheResidentSkeptic says:

More unintended consequences on the way...

I am a real old white-haired corner office CTO. I’m not a threat to anybody – but I’m ALWAYS flagged as a “SSSS” when I try to fly, so I get that “special” treatment by TSA. Why?

Because my IT shop is in India and I make and receive those damn “foreign” phone calls all the time.

I wonder how many of us are “on the list” just because we do real global work?

tomczerniawski (profile) says:

They’re smart. They’re playing the long game. They know that if their teeth are pulled and their powers limited, they’ll just sit back looking smug until some sufficiently spectacular act of terror happens and gets the populace clamoring for Patriot Act 2: Surveillance and Torture Boogaloo.

Of course, if their teeth aren’t pulled, and they retain their powers, and another impressive terrorist attack takes place, they’ll ask for more powers on top of those. There’s no winning with people like these, they’ll always seek power.

David says:

Expensive snake oil

I am reminded of some talk in a “Fuzzy logic” conference I attended. The person presenting the talk were able with lots of computing power and whatever to reach something like 20% of the signal theoretic maximum compression, so they argued if they got a lot more funding, they should be able to get significantly better than the signal theoretic maximum.

There was no getting through to them in the closing discussion. Which would be shrug-the-shoulders material if such arguments were not actually capable of securing grant money then lacking for other endeavors.

And that’s what the intelligence agencies are doing at a much more frightening scale. And they are not just burning money through at an alarming rate while believing in the ultimate conflagration, but also the freedoms we and our ancestors fought for. In the firm belief that all that is needed is larger sacrifices. Which, of course, they are not going to shoulder themselves.

sigalrm (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Oh, I can hear the prepared police statement now….

“To prevent the suspect from committing suicide, the officers opened fire, thereby killing the suspect. The shooting was justified, as there was a clear and present danger that the suspect – an upstanding member of the public – was placing a member of the public at risk.”

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“To prevent the suspect from committing suicide, the officers opened fire, thereby killing the suspect”

A number of years ago where I live, this actually happened. A woman called the police because her son had snapped and was threatening to kill himself with a large knife. The police showed up and dutifully shot him to death. The justification of the shooting was that the guy was threatening violence (to himself) with a deadly weapon.

David says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, it would likely already help if they did not need to be ashamed of being an American and could wear their head proudly. If they had a nation worth living for. If the taxes they paid when alive were not used for creating the most Orwellian fascist dictatorship in history.

If the political system were not rigged to a degree where the best thing they can do for world peace that is actually within their reach is to vote with their death since whatever else they throw into the ballot box is not making a difference.

mac insand (profile) says:

let's define 'risk'

>>I have to say that every time we lose another tool in our
>>toolkit, it raises the risk,

There are multiple risks to balance, and a certain somebody seems to forget what he is supposed to protect. He is supposed to protect our *CONSTITUTIONALLY* defined legal system, not subvert it. So, every time a tool is lost, there is also a risk of us poor little people regaining the protections that our Constitution is supposed to guarantee.

Anonymous Coward says:

“If that tool is taken away from us, 215, and, some untoward incident happens which should have been thwarted had we had it, I hope everyone involved in that decision assumes the responsibility and it not be blamed, if we have another failure, exclusively on the intelligence community.”

So is the converse true? If while under the auspices of 215 and some untoward incident happens, will Clapper take responsibility and stand ready to be blamed for sacrificing or privacy, liberty and reputation, for something ineffectual?

Anonymous Coward says:

First off Clapper, you lied – under oath – to congress. So anything you say going forward is HIGHLY suspect.

Secondly – fuck you provide evidence to back your claims that warantless dragnet surveillance somehow prevented a SINGLE form of actual terrorist plots on US soil – that a: had no help from actual police work; and b: did not involve the FBI setups on people.

Until then fuck off you liar.

A voice in the crowd. says:

“If that tool is taken away from us, 215, and, some untoward incident happens which should have been thwarted had we had it, I hope everyone involved in that decision assumes the responsibility and it not be blamed, if we have another failure, exclusively on the intelligence community.”

So is the converse true? If while under the auspices of 215 and some untoward incident happens, will Clapper take responsibility and stand ready to be blamed for sacrificing or privacy, liberty and reputation, for something so ineffectual?

Anonymous Coward says:

This it what I saw when I read his statement.

The intelligence community will do all we can within the law to do what we can to protect the country. I have to say that every time we lose another tool in our toolkit, it raises the risk,”(subtext, if you take this away there will be another strike on American soil, We will see to that, wink wink…) he added. “If that tool is taken away from us, 215, and, some untoward incident happens (subtext, It will happen, we will see to that…) which should have been thwarted had we had it,(Subtext, Wah Wah Give us back god mode…) I hope everyone involved in that decision assumes the responsibility and it not be blamed,(Subtext, We warned you….Wah Wah we need more POWER…) if we have another failure, exclusively on the intelligence community.(Subtext, Can’t blame us this time we warned you…. Wah Wah give us the right to do what ever we want Wah Wah…)

Anonymous Coward says:

The intelligence community will do all we can within (and outside of) the law to do what we can to protect the country (and the power it affords us over people). (And in the event that we get caught, we will lie, cheat, steal and misrepresent the facts surrounding our actions while twisting the law into a pretzel so that no one responsible is ever held accountable for their actions.)

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