A Private War on Terror

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I'm late to note it, but The New Yorker's Benjamin Wallace-Wells has written an interesting profile of Rita Katz and her SITE Institute. (The initials stand for Search for International Terrorist Entities. I assume that's a SETI joke.) Here's what her group does:

Traditionally, intelligence has been filtered through government agencies, such as the C.I.A. and the N.S.A., which gather raw data and analyze it, and the government decides who sees the product of their work and when. Katz…has made it her business to upset that monopoly. She and her researchers mine online sources for intelligence, which her staff translates and sends out by e-mail to a list of about a hundred subscribers.

Katz's client list includes people in the government who are presumably frustrated by how long it takes to get information through official channels; it also includes people in corporate security and in the media, who rarely get much useful material from the C.I.A. She has worked with prosecutors on more than a dozen terrorism investigations, and many American officers in Iraq rely on Katz's e-mails to, for example, brief their troops on the designs for explosives that are passed around terrorist Web sites.

Katz's organization isn't necessarily more accurate than the official intelligence outfits: It has been quick to spot terror plots even when they aren't there, and it helped assemble the case against Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a prominent victim of the Patriot Act. (Even more disturbing: Before she started her own outfit, Katz worked with the noted fruitcake Steven Emerson. I wish the profile had given more details about their falling out.) Wallace-Wells notes some parallels between Katz's milieu and "other self-appointed, at-the-barricades elites, like the neoconservatives, or the old American left, or, for that matter, an underground terrorist organization."

But for all that, SITE turns up genuinely useful information. Reading the New Yorker piece, I kept thinking of something Matt Welch wrote in Reason two years ago:

This January…a group of mostly lefty webloggers created an "Adopt-a-Journalist" movement, whereby individual campaign reporters would be tracked daily for signs of bias and sloppiness. Journalists who have a "watch blog" attached to their hides now include the aforementioned Nedra Pickler, her AP colleague Calvin Woodward, Reuters' Patricia Wilson, The New York Times' Jodi Wilgoren, and The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Cecil Connolly, among others. Commentary on these blogs ranges from the fair-minded to the cruel, but without the political motivation there probably wouldn't be any "watching" at all.

What's true of citizen-journalists applies equally to citizen-intelligence-analysts. (Indeed, I'm not sure where I'd draw the line between the two groups.) If it didn't have an axe to grind, SITE might not exist at all. Because it does, we have another source of potentially valuable information to weigh. I say let a hundred SITEs bloom, from a hundred different perspectives and with a hundred hobbyhorses to ride.

For more on open-source intelligence, go here and here.

NEXT: The Right to Human Enhancement

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  1. Just read that article last night–fascinating stuff. It appears to me that she does more good than harm, especially in the monitoring of the terrorist web presence. As we’ve learned, Arab-speaking intelligence people (on our side) are quite lacking, and her group fills a gap.

  2. So will the SITE Institute provide a downloadable screensaver that scans through your hard drive and local network, for any evidence of international terrorist activity, which it will then transmit to our federal protectors?

    More absolutely corrupting power to them. Who needs covert CIA and NSA initiatives — why bother with such projects as CARNIVORE — when private-sector interests in the free-market, such as SITE, can do the job? God Bless America!

  3. Checking out the 1999 link about “noted fruitcake” Steven Emerson, I find charges like this:

    Emerson has escaped notice in the affair–but his efforts had helped craft a hard-to-erase public perception that Pakistan was the bad guy among Asia’s nuclear novices.

    And as it turned out, the head of Pakistan’s nuclear program was selling weapons technology to everyone he could. Sounds like Emerson was right.

    The article also takes him to task for targeting Islamic scholars at the University of South Florida for connections to terrorism. Well, he was correct there, too: does the name “Sami Al-Arian” ring a bell?

    Occasionally, Emerson outdoes himself with hyperbole. In an inflammatory letter to the Voice of America (12/2/94), he fumed that radical Muslims in the United States are plotting the “mass murder of all Jews, Christians and moderate Muslims.”

    Once again, that sounds like prescient. I’m not going to defend everything the guy ever said, but the fruitcake label seems unfair when he was closer to the truth than his critics.

  4. “The article also takes him to task for targeting Islamic scholars at the University of South Florida for connections to terrorism. Well, he was correct there, too: does the name ‘Sami Al-Arian’ ring a bell?”

    Oh, you mean the guy who was acquitted on half the charges brought against him, got a hung jury on the other half and pled out on a single count with a plea for leniency by the prosecutor? Right, A-1 terrorist mastermind there….

  5. PapayaSF

    Basically the feds told him that he could plead guilty now and be deported, or they could hold him pretty much indefinitely (and then deport him).

    Great choice, huh?

    The govs case seemed to consist of playing videos of suicide bombings to the jury while making unsubstantiated assertions that he was somehow connected. If you can’t get a cherry picked jury jury to convict in the choreographed charade that passes for a federal trial today you’ve got sweet-fuck-all.

    Hmmm….OK. Some terrorist.

  6. He admitted raising money for a terrorist organization (Islamic Jihad) which he knew used violence. So you’re saying he was giving a false confession when he admitted it? Come on, face it: the guy really did have terrorist connections. The fact that the government got him via a plea bargain doesn’t make him innocent. Quite the contrary.

  7. Intelligence of any kind is highly over-rated and any kid who ever played the party game telephone ought to realize that. I may be living in Nah Nah Land but I cannot fathom how even the so-called best intelligence available could have protected us from the 09-11 attack.

    As for Sami? That guy doesn’t pass the smell test. He’s certainly not somone I’d pick as an example of how the government is persecuting innocents.

    A few weeks after the PATRIOT Act passed, a small group of liberal activists in Northampton, Massachusetts, founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee

    I asked them what the organization intended to do in defense of Amendment Number Two….

    The silence was deafening, there was a click, and then that annoying recording came on the line….

    if you’d like to make a call……..

  8. Oh yeah, I meant to say that in theory the private intelligence should be better and quicker to market (so to speak), avoiding all manner of roadblocks that interfere with assessing government provided intelligence.

    That old saying that Military Intelligence is an oxymoron applies equally to all the civilian counterparts.

  9. “The fact that the government got him via a plea bargain doesn’t make him innocent.”

    The fact that the government substantially lost a trial in front of a crooked judge and a contaminated jury pool and was so unconfident of prevailing in a second trial that it offered a plea bargain of time served and deportation suggests that he was innocent. If al-Arian was the terrorist mastermind of the century, as the prosecutors repeatedly painted him in the press, why let him go?

  10. Deporting someone is hardly the same thing as “letting them go.”

  11. I’m not saying that al-Arian wasn’t associated with terrorists. I don’t know that.

    I’m just saying the government had a piss poor case.

  12. SITES would work perfectly as soon as the FBI and the CIA are put out of business.
    In similar fashion,
    private schooling will never rise to where it should or could so long as there are government schools.

    Everlasting Catches-22, eh?

  13. Private war on terror, you say?

    A sign on the door of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque says something to the effect that “For reasons of national security, museum visitors are subject to search at any time.” The NFL is patting down every fan at every game. All 30 Major League Baseball teams rifle every carry-in bag. And CNN Studios searches you as if you’re boarding an airplane with an unsecured cockpit door before you’re allowed on the tour.

    These NSA/FBI/CIA/TSA wannabes are everywhere, and are documented on my Web site http://www.JuniorG-ManAward.com. What we haven’t been able to document is how many al-Quaida operatives these would-be Wyatt Earps have collared compared to Rita Katz.

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