Wednesday April 23, 2014
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Elliott Abrams

NSA: These are the dots

Elliot Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission and can be found on Abrams' blog "Pressure Points" here.

If there was one consensus after 9/11, it was that the U.S. had failed to "connect the dots". The significance of that phrase was twofold. First, U.S. government agencies should stop the "stovepiping" that prevented them from sharing crucial information. Second, officials had to be aware of critical intelligence, and connect the many and varied components imaginatively to determine the terrorists' activities.

What are the dots? Which information must be available? One very good example is knowing which terrorists are in touch with one another, and where they are located. Who is emailing whom? Who is calling whom? The content of those communications is sometimes less important than the fact of them -- the fact that phone number A called phone number B, or that phone number B was in Chicago or Kandahar that day, or that email address C got a message of some sort from email address D.

That metadata is what the National Security Agency collects and what some in the U.S. are considering preventing it from gathering. There are constitutional and legal arguments, and they strike me as weak. The recent decision against NSA by a U.S. District Court judge is not likely to stand upon appeal, I think, and former Attorney-General Michael Mukasey explains why here. And there are privacy arguments, which appeal to many Americans -- most of whom I believe do not understand that the NSA does not read their emails or listen to their phone calls, but looks only at the numbers and email addresses that connect up to other numbers and addresses they are tracking.

There's a kind of hysteria brewing this week, and only two things can stop it. One is leadership. Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers are supplying some, refusing to be stampeded. Will President Barack Obama supply any? Will he explain to Americans what the facts are, and why it would be dangerous to join the stampede? So far, we do not know.

The second thing that could stop or reverse this drive to prevent the NSA from doing its work would be another terrorist attack. Then, just as after 9/11, there would be calls for more active intelligence gathering, and we would find ourselves asking, "Who were the fools who stopped us from collecting the data we need? Who stopped us from collecting and connecting the dots?"

That would be a tragic way of relearning this lesson. Let's hope cooler heads prevail, and that the president can provide some leadership here. Lives may ultimately depend on it.

From "Pressure Points" by Elliot Abrams. Reprinted with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations.

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