Drawing the lone superpower into an endless global struggle, draining it of its wealth and will

Wanted: Competent Big Brothers

After four and a half years, our intelligence and national-security apparatus still hasn’t learned how to track terrorists, and the Bush administration has put forward little more than cosmetic reforms.

The legal controversy over the NSA surveillance program has obscured an intelligence issue that is at least as important to the nation’s future: sheer competence. Do we have any idea what we’re doing? One reason the NSA is listening in on so many domestic conversations fruitlessly—few of the thousands of tips panned out, according to The Washington Post—is that the agency barely has a clue as to who, or what, it is supposed to be monitoring.

While soaking up the lion’s share of the $40 billion annual intel budget, the NSA continues to preside over an antiquated cold-war apparatus, one designed to listen in on official communications pipelines in nation-states. Today it is overwhelmed by cell-phone and Internet traffic. While terror groups multiply, the NSA is still waiting for the next Soviet Union to arise (which many in the Pentagon see as China, say, 50 to 100 years from now). As a December 2002 report by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee noted, “Only a tiny fraction” of the NSA’s 650 million daily intercepts worldwide “are actually ever reviewed by humans, and much of what is collected gets lost in the deluge of data.”

As the hearings over the NSA continue as the article suggests the Senators need to be questioning both the legality and the competence of the Bush directives. Are the Bushies giving our national security the Katrina treatment and mostly spinning wheels or are they doing something substantive. Its not the American people, but it seems like a majority of humanity has often times been caught up in a furuor of nationalism at the expense of holding the powers that be accountable for real measurable accomplishments. The righties claim to care about national security and on some level I’m sure that some of them do, but way too often the shouts of anti-patriotism to drown out any legitimate critism of Bush may be in fact putting America’s long term security in peril. While the cartoon bruhaha has mushroomed into a serious matter it is also distracting from even more serious matters like the best and most effective uses of our intelligence assets and the role that Iran and probably Saudi Arabia is playing in formenting unrest among certain Muslim communities.

Former NSA senior director Philip Bobbitt, writing recently in The New York Times, provided a vivid example of the importance of data mining and pattern analysis. On Sept. 10, 2001, he wrote, the NSA intercepted two messages: ”The match begins tomorrow” and ”Tomorrow is zero hour.” They were picked up from random monitoring of pay phones in areas of Afghanistan where Al Qaeda was active. No one knew what to make of them, and in any case they were not translated or disseminated until Sept. 12. But “had we at the time cross-referenced credit card accounts, frequent-flyer programs and a cellphone number shared by those two men, data mining might easily have picked up on the 17 other men linked to them and flying on the same day at the same time on four flights,” Bobbitt wrote. Today the NSA seems hardly more capable of piecing together the next “tomorrow is zero hour” intercept.

Which would seem to indicate that since Bush and minions can’t handle the proper processing of intelligence from legal uses of surveillance, should they be going out of their way to circumvent FISA laws to data mine information from thousands of Americans that in the vast majority of the time have yielded little in the way of useful information…chickens…running..around..heads..and so forth. It not like Bush and Cheney have any achievements of note on their respective resumes.

Only one person has the power to slice through the bureaucratic inertia and set real reform in motion: the president of the United States. But to do so, of course, could put the permanent war in jeopardy. And if you’re a “war president,” as Bush describes himself, and you want to reassert presidential power, as he does, then permanent war can be a good thing. Perhaps that is why Karl Rove, with his war-works-for-the-GOP campaign strategy for 2006, looks so happy these days. Perhaps it is why the president—who once dismissed Osama bin Laden as unimportant as he diverted the nation’s attention and resources to Iraq—now says that Americans should take the mastermind of 9/11 “seriously.” (Wasn’t it just Groundhog Day recently?) Perhaps it is why the Bush administration is now devoting so much to its military buildup while stripping critical education programs needed to make America more competitive, insisting on permanent tax cuts and ensuring monster deficits for decades.

Wait a minute. Drawing the lone superpower into an endless global struggle, draining it of its wealth and will … that was Osama bin Laden’s strategic goal, right? Didn’t we have some intelligence on that once?

Its not just Bush, we’ve been under one party rule for a while and any critism from his own party is timid and usually ignored. So hey let’s party like this war will never end, because it looks like that the way certain people want it even if that’s not their intention.

02-10-06: updated for typos