Elliot Rodger, a college student who posted videos that documented his rage against women, killed six people and wounded 13 others last week. He stabbed three men to death in his apartment and shot the others as he opened fire on bystanders on the crowded streets of Isla Vista, California. Rodger then killed himself. Three semi automatic handguns, along with 41 loaded ten-round magazines— all bought at local gun stores— were found in his car. There could have been many more dead.
So where was the NSA?
For the year since Edward Snowden revealed in detail the comprehensive spying on every aspect of American lives, we have been assured by the president and the NSA that every single one of those intrusions into our life was necessary to protect us. The now-former NSA chief said he knows of no better way his agency can help protect the U.S. than with spy programs that collect billions of phone and Internet records. “How do we connect the dots?” he said, referring to often-hidden links between people, events and what they do online. “There is no other way that we know of to connect the dots. Taking these programs off the table is absolutely not the thing to do.”
So where was the NSA?
Elliot Rodger posted on his social media, presumably monitored by the NSA, about suicide and killing people. His family asked police to visit Rodger’s residence. But when they showed up, Rodger simply told deputies it was a misunderstanding and that he was not going to hurt anyone or himself. No search was conducted.
Barely 24 hours before the killing spree, Rodger posted a video on YouTube, presumably monitored by the NSA, in which he sat behind the steering wheel of his black BMW and for seven minutes announced his plans for violence. The video has been leaked– see it here.
So where was the NSA in Boston?
In the case of the Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the NSA failed to notice the Boston bomber’s visits to al Qaeda’s online magazine or his “terrorist” YouTube videos. The online magazine gave Tsarnaev the details he needed to build his bombs. The NSA also failed to note the online communications Tsarnaev had with a known extremist in Dagestan, who reportedly listed Tsarnaev among his cyber friends.
Even after the bombing, the NSA, Justice Department, and Homeland Security failed to identify the suspects from close-up pictures, and had to ask the public for help, even though photos of both brothers were scattered across social media, presumably monitored by the NSA.
What was law enforcement doing in Boston in the time period leading up to the bombings? Monitoring Occupy and others, including tracking the Facebook pages and websites of protesters and writing reports on the potential impact on “commercial and financial sector assets” in downtown areas.
The monitoring of legitimate protest groups was not limited to Boston. The FBI monitored Occupy Wall Street from its earliest days and treated the nonviolent movement as a potential terrorist threat. Internal government records show Occupy was treated as a potential threat when organizing first began in August of 2011. Counterterrorism agents were used to track Occupy activities.
So where is the NSA?
All of the failures of the NSA cited above are exactly the kind of connect-the-dots fails that spying on all Americans were supposed to alleviate. At this point we’re left with one of two explanations.
The first explanation is that the NSA is simply incompetent. They may not be very good at their job, their technological ability to collect may not be matched with an ability to process the data, or they are simply so flooded with data as to be ineffective. Why should we expect a government that stumbles on everything from managing appointment lists at veteran’s hospitals to major foreign policy endeavors to do any better at intelligence work.
The second explanation is much darker. It remains possible the business about connecting dots and protecting America is a ruse, a sham, a cover story, and that mass surveillance has a much more sinister purpose. Pick one: control dissent, spy on groups like Occupy, blackmail, political advantage, industrial intel, and so forth. Snowden’s revelations, as significant as they are, really only shed light on what the NSA does. They do not address why the NSA spies on us. Therein lies the real story of the century, waiting for the next whistleblower to expose.
Some commentators on the Isla Vista mass killing have decried the problem of “What could have been done? Sure he posted some crazy stuff, but he didn’t really commit a crime before he started shooting, right?”
Interesting argument, until you compare it to how the government deals with “real terrorists.” The magic words used are “conspiracy to commit terrorism,” a crime that basically involves talking about or planning to do something awful. The same law exists in regards to planning to commit a garden-variety murder. The logic is that if the police have clear evidence that you are about to blow up a skyscraper, it makes no sense that they have to wait until you trigger the dynamite to arrest you. Fair enough.
But let’s look at a few examples in practice.
In North Carolina recently, the FBI charged two men they say conspired and trained to exact “violent jihad.” The federal investigation began when one man contacted an undercover FBI source by email and told him he wanted to go overseas and fight, and he asked another how he should prepare to fight in Yemen or Syria. The other guy frequently “spoke about his weapons,” and said he was “considering” violent acts either in the United States or abroad. The men were arrested and charged with conspiracy.
Three members of a Georgia militia were charged with conspiracy to attack federal agencies. They “attempted” to obtain pipe bombs and thermite devices, and chatted online about plans to attack the federal government.
American citizen “Jihani Jane” was charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism based nearly completely on her online activities.
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