During the first hour of his show last Tuesday, Dennis Prager challenged his listeners as follows (starting at 11'39"):
[T]hose of you who are opposed to the NSA surveillance of billions of calls and texts are, in my opinion, taking as foolish a position [as those who advocate for gun control in response to shootings] for your own noble reasons. There are noble reasons on the Left: they don't want anybody shot by guns. There are noble reasons on parts the Right: they want privacy. If you can tell me how any part of your privacy has been infringed upon by the NSA, you will convert me to your position...
So I feel like I'm in a pincer here: the Left wants us to disarm in terms of arms, and parts of the Right -- the Libertarian Right -- wants us to disarm in terms of surveillance. And each has its own noble motive. In the meantime, more and more innocent people will be slaughtered.
Speaking as one of those libertarians -- and as a subscriber to Prager's radio show --let me say that I do not want our intelligence agencies to “disarm”; I’m as concerned as Prager about the dangers posed by radical Islamists, and I want our government to take pro-active steps to protect its citizens. Spying and surveillance are, and should be, a part of those efforts.
But implied in Prager’s thinking is the idea that the specific kind of spying done by the NSA -- i.e, trolling billions of communications by ordinary Americans -- is a necessary and effective means to achieve that end. This doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Indeed, I posit that the NSA's colossal and expensive efforts not only pose an additional threat to our freedoms -- on top of those already posed by the IRS, ObamaCare, and the rest of the federal leviathan -- but also also waste precious security resources that could be better spent on traditional methods to identify, find, track, and apprehend those who mean us harm. Simply put, the government's investment in the NSA needlessly risks our freedoms while offering sub-par benefits in security.
Consider, for example, the information that was available to law enforcement about Tamerlan Tsarnaev prior to the Boston Marathon bombings without the NSA:
- That he had a history of violence: he punched one of his sister’s boyfriends in 2007 because he wasn’t a Muslim; two years later, one of his girlfriends called 9-11 after he hit her, but later dropped the charges (bear in mind that this man was a trained boxer);
- That he had been pulled over nine times in the past four years by local police;
- That Russian security was sufficiently concerned about his connections (via social media) with a Canadian-Russian Jihadist that they warned the FBI about him in 2011;
- That he was childhood friends with one of three men -- all Jewish and all either martial artists or body-builders -- who were brutally murdered on September 11, 2011 by someone strong enough to overpower them; and
- That he subsequently travelled to Russia for six months in 2012, where he came to the attention of Russian authorities again. When he returned to the United States six months later, he had grown a full beard.
The first two of these show some remarkably bad behavior for a non-citizen; had we reasonable immigration system, they would have short-listed him for deportation. The others should have both accelerated that process and/or been cause for further investigation, perhaps electronic wiretapping upon obtaining a warrant. As with so many of these incidents, the problem had less to do with the Jihadis' skill in hiding than with the government's inability to follow-up on information already available to it.
That said, the FBI did interview Tsarnaev in 2011 following the Russian tip. They must neither have looked closely nor followed up, as they didn't notice that Tsarnaev:
- Had had no regular employment since his boxing career ended due to a rule change that excluded non-citizens;
- Was collecting food-stamps and public assistance during his six-month trip to Russia;
- Created a YouTube playlist called "terrorists" shortly after returning from Russia, and uploaded videos of Dagestani Islamists;
- Was, according to his cell phone data, in the area of the triple murder he was connected to (Tsarnaev is now widely believed to have been one of the murderers); and
- Had nearly been kicked out of his mosque in early 2013 for repeatedly arguing with the imam during services; the substance of the arguments concerned the celebration of American holidays and honoring Rev. Martin Luther King (the imam favoring these, Tsarnaev saying they were not in accordance with Islam).
None of this information was produced by the NSA, either before or after the Boston Marathon Attack. Indeed -- so far as we know -- the NSA was completely unaware of Tsarnaev. They even missed his YouTube playlist and his social media connections to a known terrorist, which are the exact kind of things you would think the agency's algorithms would be primed to notice and follow-up on. God only knows what else they missed that we don't know about.
To make matters worse, this is not the first time we know the NSA failed to notice a painfully conspicuous and careless Jihadi in our midst. As has been known for years, Nidal Hasan had emailed Anwar al-Awlaki multiple times asking about the permissibility of killing innocents in the name of Jihad. Interestingly, these communications weren't intercepted by the NSA, but by the FBI, who was -- entirely appropriately -- monitoring Al-Awlaki's communications.
So how could an agency like the NSA, armed with a budget of billions and thousands of tech-savvy technicians, miss two such obvious targets as Tsarnaev and Hasan? The answer is that the NSA was too busy sorting through billions of innocuous communications by ordinary Americans to find actual Jihadis. If we had unlimited resources, perhaps the program could justify its costs and risks. But given that resources are limited, this is not an efficient way to protect our citizens.
This is a lesson we all learn in our private lives. When we're young and fresh out of school, our idea of grocery shopping is often to go to the store, grab a cart, go down each aisle, and grab whatever catches our fancy. hough we sometimes find interesting things along the way, we more often find ourselves having blown a full hour with nothing to show for it but an expensive pile of food that doesn't contain even a single meal. But as we get older, we learn that it's much more efficient to make a shopping list, while keeping an eye out for the occasional item we hadn't thought of earlier.
This is why I urge Prager and others to reconsider their defense of the NSA program. Not only does it add risk to our freedoms by giving the government yet another avenue into our private lives, it's too vast and ineffective to catch terrorists; we'd be much better off if the government restricted its surveillance to targets they have sufficient reason to garner a warrant. In both Tsarnaev and Hasan's cases, there was ample evidence available to law enforcement and intelligence to justify just this kind of focused investigation.
But so long as the government insists on seeing everything possible, we can be certain they'll continue to find nothing useful.