Another Reason The NSA Can't Prevent Terrorist Attacks: Protecting Its Methods Is More Important Than Protecting The Public

from the I-sincerely-hope-I'm-overstating-this-possibility dept

The NSA insists everything that's been exposed so far by Snowden's leaks is direly necessary to protect us from terrorists. It still has trouble pinpointing any instances where bulk records collections and widespread internet data harvesting have prevented attacks, but it continues to assure us of its need to continue building its haystacks unimpeded.

The NSA's fight against terror is being hampered by its own greed. Too much data has proven to be just as useless as too little. And that's only part of the problem. It's preventative efforts only go so far. Bruce Schneier's post on the delayed reaction to Syria's chemical weapons attack highlights the limitations inherent to intelligence agencies.

We recently learned that US intelligence agencies had at least three days' warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to launch a chemical attack on his own people, but wasn't able to stop it…

More interestingly, the US government did not choose to act on that knowledge (for example, launch a preemptive strike), which left some wondering why.
The first aspect is the sheer amount of data. As Schneier points out, connecting the dots is easy… in hindsight. In "realtime," it's impossible.
Rather than thinking of intelligence as a connect-the-dots picture, think of it as a million unnumbered pictures superimposed on top of each other. Which picture is the relevant one? We have no idea. Turning that data into actual information is an extraordinarily difficult problem, and one that the vast scope of our data-gathering programs makes even more difficult.
Our intelligence agencies must realize this. But it seems the thirst for data is unquenchable. Gen. Alexander made it clear he wants to "collect it all." The usefulness of these collections rely on the agency's unshakable faith that a better algorithm is just around the corner -- the final bit of filtering that will make millions of overlayed pictures suddenly snap into focus. Take it all, sort it out later and never mind the fact that the picture just gets more confusing with each additional collection.

The second aspect Schneier points out is a lack of confirmation -- not enough proof to act preemptively. A lack of solid proof can often paralyze government entities, from the White House all the way down to public schools. Rather than make a mistake and suffer the fallout, they refuse to move at all, hoping that some final bit of info will arrive, pristine and transparent, and make that tough decision for them. But nothing's that crystal clear, not when tough decisions need to be made. Anyone can make the easy call. Leaders make the tough calls and not enough people qualify for that title.

But the third aspect is the most chilling. It performs a very dark and very troubling calculation that weighs human lives against continued secrecy.
The third is that while we were sure of our information, we couldn't act because that would reveal "sources and methods." This is probably the most frustrating explanation. Imagine we are able to eavesdrop on al-Assad's most private conversations with his generals and aides, and are absolutely sure of his plans. If we act on them, we reveal that we are eavesdropping. As a result, he's likely to change how he communicates, costing us our ability to eavesdrop. It might sound perverse, but often the fact that we are able to successfully spy on someone is a bigger secret than the information we learn from that spying.
Schneier is discussing this in the context of the Syrian gas attack, but it also contains unsettling implications for the never ending War on Terror. What if the NSA (or CIA or FBI) manage to uncover a terrorist plot via methods it considers too valuable to expose? Does it allow the attack to proceed rather than jeopardize a useful surveillance program? Would it do that, justifying its decision with the rationale that the protected program will save that many more lives in the future?

The decision isn't likely to be completely binary. There are still options to pursue, as Schneier notes, citing an occasion when intelligence agencies did exactly that -- hamstrung their own efforts in order to protect ongoing surveillance.
During the war, the British were able to break the German Enigma encryption machine and eavesdrop on German military communications. But while the Allies knew a lot, they would only act on information they learned when there was another plausible way they could have learned it. They even occasionally manufactured plausible explanations. It was just too risky to tip the Germans off that their encryption machines' code had been broken.
The NSA, with the cooperation of other agencies, could (possibly quite easily) manufacture plausible explanations as to how it got ahold of this intelligence without sacrificing the surveillance method. The other agencies certainly have had no trouble manufacturing cover stories, like the false paper trails, etc. they've used to hide illegal access to data.

But what if there wasn't time or the cover story too full of holes? What then? What if the attack wouldn't affect Americans? Would the NSA let that one go?

More importantly, has the NSA earned the trust that's needed to believe it would sacrifice a valuable intel method rather than prevent an attack? At this point, the answer is no.

On the bright-ish side, several methods have already been at least partially exposed. Inference and extrapolation help round out the picture. If the NSA can do X, then it stands to reason it can do Y. There's less to protect, surveillance-wise and so cover stories will be easier to generate. The fact that the NSA couldn't prevent Snowden from doing what he did and still doesn't seem to have any idea what he took also works in the public's favor. This makes mercenary decisions like the one above less likely simply because there's a very good chance that it will be swiftly exposed, and I don't believe the NSA is actually looking to coat its hands with more blood.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 19th, 2013 @ 10:03am

    that should be protecting itself not protecting it's methods!

    the NSA have shown that it will do anything and everything to defend anything and everything, anyone and everyone, except those who should be at the top of the list, the people!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    kenichi tanaka (profile), Sep 19th, 2013 @ 10:06am

    I'm shocked. The only thing that the NSA has done has been to create an even bigger mess. Instead of becoming an effective agency, there's no way that the NSA will be ever to stop a terrorist plot because now they are collecting so much crap data that they're burying any possible valid investigative leads.

    The intent is to make it easier to do your job, not to make it more difficult.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    out_of_the_blue, Sep 19th, 2013 @ 10:12am

    Schneier seems to be flogging official US propaganda:

    "We recently learned that US intelligence agencies had at least three days' warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to launch a chemical attack on his own people, but wasn't able to stop itů"

    No, you do NOT know that. The Russians have officially called it a false flag and blamed the US-backed "rebels", as have some US conservatives including Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, and even Rush Limbaugh!

    This is a quite objective look (that I went to for):

    Since Schneier buys into an exposed false flag in which real people died, how reliable are his other notions?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 19th, 2013 @ 10:22am

    If you know a crime is going to be committed, and do nothing to stop it. Aren't you yourself culpable?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    AMusingFool (profile), Sep 19th, 2013 @ 10:33am

    Come up with a plausible explanation?

    How's that worked out for them, as Snowden's leaks keep coming out?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), Sep 19th, 2013 @ 10:38am

    This has always been the problem with spying and surveillance. The moment you act on what you know, you risk the person being watched figuring out your methods.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Sep 19th, 2013 @ 10:51am


    When talking about non-federal crimes, no. There is no general requirement in the US that you report crimes that you are aware have been committed or are about to be committed. There are special, specific exceptions usually around people in certain professions. Also, if you fail to report a crime is going to be/has been committed and you stand to benefit from that crime, you could be considered an accessory.

    There is this bit of law about federal crimes, though. 18 USC Section 4 provides that:

    "Whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony cognizable by a court of the United States, conceals and does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."

    However, the NSA is itself a military authority in the US, and so they could argue that the statue requires that they report crimes to themselves.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Atkray (profile), Sep 19th, 2013 @ 11:02am

    They need to collect insane amounts of data so that after an event they can display the data, point to an individual scapegoat and fire them, then insist more data woud have prevented said event.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Sychodelix (profile), Sep 19th, 2013 @ 11:04am

    The Real Question

    "What if the NSA (or CIA or FBI) manage to uncover a terrorist plot via methods it considers too valuable to expose? Does it allow the attack to proceed rather than jeopardize a useful surveillance program?"

    The real question is, how many times has this ALREADY happened?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Rikuo (profile), Sep 19th, 2013 @ 11:41am

    Get ready for the latest conspiracy theories. NSA had intelligence that bin Laden was going to hijack a plane, but didn't know what his purpose was. They thought he was going to hold the passengers for ransom. This intel could only have come from one source, a source they wanted to protect.
    The rest is history.

    Given the actions of the NSA, can you honestly tell me that the above scenario is not very probable? I don't believe it myself, but it could very well have been true.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), Sep 19th, 2013 @ 12:01pm

    The NSA does what?

    Wait, the NSA is supposed to provide foreign intelligence as well?

    I thought it was just a means to incriminate undesirable Americans stifle terrorist attacks on US soil.

    As of this posting I have not received a US National Security Letter or any classified gag order from an agent of the United States.
    Encrypted with Morbius-Cochrane Perfect Steganographic Codec 1.2.001
    Thursday, September 19, 2013 11:46:08 AM
    noise rose saw cockroach sale university chart diving board

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), Sep 19th, 2013 @ 12:02pm

    Re: The NSA does what?

    Huh, my strikeout tags didn't work. Foiled!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Ray Trygstad (profile), Sep 19th, 2013 @ 12:38pm

    Methods trump information: nothing new here.

    When I was deployed as the Air Department Operations Officer aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Indian Ocean in the early 80's, I used the French Navy's daily intelligence summary for my mission planning, because I only had a Secret clearance. The U.S. Navy intelligence summary was Top Secret, not because the information in it was much different from the French report, but because of the methods used to collect the intelligence--mostly advanced electronic intelligence, or ELINT, tools. So it was more important to protect the sources of the material than it was to get the material to the people who needed it to do their jobs. It sometimes seems that nothing ever changes in the DOD.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Sep 19th, 2013 @ 12:53pm


    We killed Yamamoto.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 19th, 2013 @ 5:35pm

    Methods Leak

    Let's see. Snowden is in Russia. The Russians may or may not be aware of the NSA methods and procedures. Snowden certainly is aware of them. Will The Russians get the info from Snowden? We'll see.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    RightHonorableJudas, Sep 19th, 2013 @ 5:37pm

    The easiest reason of all...

    real terrorists don't exist. It's only western "intelligence" agencies masquerading as AL CIA DUH or whatever flavor of the week is popular.

    Yes Virginia, even the smart college educated people fall for dumb shit like this. NSA has been spying and doing illegal crap since its inception, ditto with the CIA and FBI (and whatever the hell other agencies exist).

    Tell me, how many countries have the CIA installed puppets? HMM? How many millions have been murdered as direct and indirect results from "intervention" wink wink nudge nudge.

    It's been widely publicized that the gov recently bought BILLIONS of rounds of hollow point (primary use is to kill fleshy targets aka humans)... it's because they know all the shit they've done is being exposed.

    Morons who cry "conspiracy theory" at anything they disagree with, will bear the full brunt of the karmic vengeance.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 19th, 2013 @ 8:09pm


    More likely scenario, if they had intelligence that Bin Laden was going to ram planes into WTC but they couldn't act on it because they didn't have a plausible source.

    So um... what was the rational for gathering all that data again?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 22nd, 2013 @ 9:45am


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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