Monday, June 10, 2013

Metadata and the Common Defense

by Frank Gaffney, Jr.

The revelation that the super-secret National Security Agency has been vacuuming up so-called “metadata” from foreign and American communications has lots of us in a full-scale flail.

The libertarian Right denounces it as an unacceptable abuse of government power.  Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is inviting millions of Americans to join him in bringing a class-action suit before the Supreme Court to stop this now-not-so-covert program.

Even the Left that normally, reflexively supports whatever President Obama does is up in arms.  The original story broke in Britain’s virulently anti-American Guardian newspaper and its flames have been fanned by some of Mr. Paul’s most liberal colleagues, like Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Here’s the question that must be addressed:  Is this effort to detect and counter patterns of behavior that may be associated with terrorists and their plots legitimate and necessary?  All three branches of government have agreed that it is legal and required – provided Team Obama is not doing as it has done elsewhere: namely, abusing its powers for political purposes.

Unfortunately, supporters of this program are being buffeted by growing evidence that the Obama administration continues to blur – if not actually brazenly to cross – the lines between constitutionally appropriate and legal actions and those that are beyond the pale.

Notably, the Daily Caller uncovered the fact that Douglas Shulman, the man who as acting IRS Commissioner presided over the Internal Revenue Service’s scandalous abuse of conservative, Tea Party and Jewish organizations seeking 501(c) status, visited the White House 157 times from September 2009 to January 2013. That’s more than any Cabinet officer and far more than his predecessor, who went to the White House only once in four years.

So much for Obama partisans’ insistence that there is no connection between President Obama and this outrageous misconduct.  It strains credulity that neither he nor his subordinates were involved in, or at least being kept apprized of, the politicization of the tax-collection apparatus.  While we probably won’t know for some time exactly who was responsible – let alone whether they will ever be held accountable, the evidence of such rot in the system inevitably justifies skepticism about other government activities susceptible to abuse.

This is particularly worrisome in light of the extent to which Team Obama has demonstrated, with expert guidance from the same information technology companies cooperating with the NSA, technical superiority in using to maximum political advantage personal data that is public or commercially available.  The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns describes how the Obama campaign (both its official and private sector apparatuses) identified and “nudged” prospective voters with micro-targeting and data profiling.

In the face of an administration that often refuses to use actual intelligence about our enemies’ intentions (as with Major Hassan) lest they “offend” leftist and Islamist constituencies, the national security-minded are going to see a continuing need for broad data surveillance.  That will necessitate continued safeguards and checks-and-balances, with better-informed congressional oversight from the intelligence committees and judicial review of the nature of and justification for future use of this capability.

Those committees are acutely aware of their responsibility not to impede our ability to ferret out enemy cells, through delays or leaks.  This is especially a concern since our foes have proven agile in adapting their covert operations when they learn, usually thanks to leakers, about our intelligence collection sources and methods.

For all these reasons, we require a debate that goes beyond the unfolding one about the wisdom and constitutionality of NSA data-mining.  We also need to address whether we now must focus our intelligence assets and energies squarely on those who are most responsible for the threat we face at the moment: adherents to the Islamic supremacist doctrine of shariah and the jihadism (or holy war) it impels.

Needless to say, this would require myriad changes in the way the U.S. government has been conducting what it euphemistically calls “countering violent extremism.”  For starters, we need to jettison that misleading term.  It’s the jihad, stupid. And we need to undo forthwith the insane November 2011 decision by the then-Homeland Security Advisor to the President, now-CIA Director John Brennan, to purge information in the files of the FBI, the military, the intelligence community and Homeland Security Department that connects the dots between shariah, jihad and terrorism – and resume training rooted in that causal linkage.

It is seductive to believe that our security can be assured cost-free.  It can’t.  In the event of another, even more horrific jihadist bloodletting in this country, civil liberties could be sacrificed in a way that will make what is afoot at the moment – as best we can tell – pale by comparison.  Our challenge is to keep the latter from happening while minimizing the infringement on the vast majority of Americans’ privacy.  It would help in this regard if we dispense with the “political correctness” that is making us vacuum up everyone’s communications lest we “offend” those who are the source of the real threat.

Frank Gaffney, Jr. is the Founder and President of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. Under Mr. Gaffney's leadership, the Center has been nationally and internationally recognized as a resource for timely, informed and penetrating analyses of foreign and defense policy matters.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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