No, Mass Surveillance Won't Stop Terrorist Attacks

The continued use of digital dragnets is a virtual guarantee of more lethal intelligence failures.


The recent terrorist attack on the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo generated a now-familiar meme: Another terrorist attack means we need more surveillance.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that while "Congress having oversight certainly is important … what is more important relative to these types of events is ensuring we don't overly hamstring the NSA's ability to collect this kind of information in advance and keep these kinds of activities from occurring." Similarly, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) spoke of his "fear" that "our intelligence capabilities, those designed to prevent such an attack from taking place on our shores, are quickly eroding," adding that the government surveillance "designed to prevent these types of attacks from occurring is under siege."

A recent poll demonstrates that their sentiments are widely shared in the wake of the attack.

But would more mass surveillance have prevented the assault on the Charlie Hebdo office? Events from 9/11 to the present help provide the answer:

  • 2009: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—i.e., the "underwear bomber"—nearly succeeded in downing the airline he was on over Detroit because, according to then-National Counterterrorism Center (NCC) director Michael Leiter, the federal Intelligence Community (IC) failed "to connect, integrate, and fully understand the intelligence" it had collected.
  • 2009: Army Major Nidal Hasan was able to conduct his deadly, Anwar al-Awlaki-inspired rampage at Ft. Hood, Texas, because the FBI bungled its Hasan investigation.
  • 2013: The Boston Marathon bombing happened, at least in part, because the CIA, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), FBI, NCC, and National Security Agency (NSA) failed to properly coordinate and share information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his family, associations, and travel to and from Russia in 2012. Those failures were detailed in a 2014 report prepared by the Inspectors General of the IC, Department of Justice, CIA, and DHS.
  • 2014: The Charlie Hebdo and French grocery store attackers were not only known to French and U.S. authorities but one had a prior terrorism conviction and another was monitored for years by French authorities until less than a year before the attack on the magazine.

No, mass surveillance does not prevent terrorist attacks.

It's worth remembering that the mass surveillance programs initiated by the U.S. government after the 9/11 attacks—the legal ones and the constitutionally-dubious ones—were premised on the belief that bin Laden's hijacker-terrorists were able to pull off the attacks because of a failure to collect enough data. Yet in their subsequent reports on the attacks, the Congressional Joint Inquiry (2002) and the 9/11 Commission found exactly the opposite. The data to detect (and thus foil) the plots was in the U.S. government's hands prior to the attacks; the failures were ones of sharing, analysis, and dissemination. That malady perfectly describes every intelligence failure from Pearl Harbor to the present day.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (created by Congress in 2004) was supposed to be the answer to the "failure-to-connect-the-dots" problem. Ten years on, the problem remains, the IC bureaucracy is bigger than ever, and our government is continuing to rely on mass surveillance programs that have failed time and again to stop terrorists while simultaneously undermining the civil liberties and personal privacy of every American. The quest to "collect it all," to borrow a phrase from NSA Director Keith Alexander, only leads to the accumulation of masses of useless information, making it harder to find real threats and costing billions to store.

A recent Guardian editorial noted that such mass-surveillance myopia is spreading among European political leaders as well, despite the fact that "terrorists, from 9/11 to the Woolwich jihadists and the neo-Nazi Anders Breivik, have almost always come to the authorities' attention before murdering."

Mass surveillance is not only destructive of our liberties, its continued use is a virtual guarantee of more lethal intelligence failures. And our continued will to disbelieve those facts is a mental dodge we engage in at our peril.

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  1. …what is more important relative to these types of events is ensuring we don’t overly hamstring the NSA’s ability to collect this kind of information in advance and keep these kinds of activities from occurring.

    Damn you, Bill of Rights!

    1. Nobody ever said that “not letting a good crisis go to waste” was the exclusive province of the left.

    2. “Considering the Charlie Hebdo murders and the threat of terrorism, should we repeal the Bill of Rights?”:

  2. We don’t need mass surveillance to catch terrorists, silly.

    We need mass surveillance to bring about volksgemeinschaft, eliminate the undesirables, and surely terrorist free utopia will result.

    /After reading about Auschwitz.

  3. Pat, your premise is flawed. They don’t do it to keep us safe.

  4. It’s breathtaking how even after more than a decade at war that our “leaders” still so fundamentally fail to understand the nature of the (relatively tiny) terrorist threat to the US.

  5. Odd it is that every entity that points these cameras at us, will scream bloody murder when a camera is pointed towards them.

    1. “Odd it is that every entity that points these cameras at us, will scream bloody murder when a camera is pointed towards them.”

      Well, their loyalty is not in question, civilian AlgerHiss.

  6. While I certainly agree with the conclusion (mass surveillance is not effective), just from the article this conclusion does not flow from the premises and the arguments. If the premise is that after we get intelligence, all we do is screw it up or not pass it along, the “Occam’s razor” answer is to stop screwing it up and start passing it along, not to never gather the intelligence in the first place. The better argument against the surveillance state is that the freedom lost is the security won.

    1. “Freedom lost is greater than the security won.” Somehow that sentence got mangled.

  7. the premise is that after we get intelligence, all we do is screw it up or not pass it along, the “Occam’s razor” answer is to stop screwing it up and start passing it along,

    That assumes, in the face of all the evidence, that we can stop screwing it up.

    Since the collection is justified on the premise that we will put it to good use, at some point you have to say, “welp, we just never do, so I guess we might as well shut it down.”

    /sanity OFF

    1. I imagine the problem is twofold:

      1). The sheer amount of data to be analyzed.
      2). Petty bureacrats are doing the analysis.

  8. You can’t stop everything. The terrorist are paying a game with the law of averages. What you can do is let them win by changing your way of life.

    I think terrorism has changed some in terms of their isn’t a political goal. They have an ideological goal and won’t stop until western civ resembles their twisted caliphate.

    I look at it this way. We will kill more Americans via smoke, booze, and shitty driving then they ever can. So, in short fuck the terrorist and fuck our statist politicians that allow the terrorist to “terrorize” our citizens by convincing is to surrender our freedoms.

    1. “What you can do is let them win by changing your way of life.”

      Dr. Grant Wardlaw basically wrote this same conculsion in tha late eighties:…..0521368413

  9. But there was a privately operated drone that crashed on the White House lawn. At the wee hours of the morning. And the Obama children were home.

    1. IN MY HOME! IN MY BEDROOM! Where my wife sleeps… and my children come and play with their toys.

      1. Be reasonable, Michael.

  10. Nice article in today’s WSJ about DEA compiling license tag database. It started on the border but they’re trying to take it nationwide. They use license plate readers and those ubiquitous white traffic cameras.…..1422314779

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  12. You want a solution? Change THEIR way of life. Give them freedom and respect them as adults with inherrent rights, and you will see many problems go away.

    Give them access to genuinely free markets, real education (rather than indonctrination), and the freedom to feed their family and bitch about the government. This will due a hell of a lot more than any surveillance.

    Really. It will.

    will there still be terrorists? Sure there will. Of course. Because there will always be crazy bastards. But freedom will do more to solve these problems than any amount of surveillance.

  13. Time for Americans to grow a pair and realize you can either have liberty and the occasional terrorist event, or you can throw away your rights and have the occasional terrorist event.

    1. ^^^THIS.
      I can’t believe someone hasn’t simply pointed out that government is a cost. It’s something we pay for – collectively, it’s $2.7 TRILLION a year.

      Now, ask yourself, is it worth the cost? For what you get (in services) in return – along with the concomitant loss of rights?? FUCK. NO.

      I’ll gladly do away with DHS, TSA, ICE (or whatever they’re called now), and take my chances in my own home/neighborhood with my own weapons. Thank you very much. I’m fairly certain me and my neighbors could organize to way better effect than the current conglomeration of asshats if Islamic Jihadists showed up in our ‘hood. I’m completely confident in my ability to do so – but then again, I’ve got more than a few deployments playing that game already.

  14. my buddy’s step-sister makes $89 hourly on the laptop . She has been fired for 8 months but last month her income was $16413 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Get the facts………

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