Do We Really Want Better Intelligence?

Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.

Foreign Policy magazine is running a package called “Unconventional Wisdom,” and Stephen Sestanovich’s contribution is to tell us that conventional wisdom debunking isn’t what it used to be. Anne Applebaum then proves his point with a piece about the ongoing idiocy of TSA and the Department of Homeland Security:

Terrorists have been stopped since 2001 and plots prevented, but always by other means. After the Nigerian “underwear bomber” of Christmas Day 2009 was foiled, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed “the system worked” — but the bomber was caught by a passenger, not the feds. Richard Reid, the 2001 shoe bomber, was undone by an alert stewardess who smelled something funny. The 2006 Heathrow Airport plot was uncovered by an intelligence tip. Al Qaeda’s recent attempt to explode cargo planes was caught by a human intelligence source, not an X-ray machine. Yet the TSA responds to these events by placing restrictions on shoes, liquids, and now perhaps printer cartridges.

Given this reality — and given that 9/11 was, above all, a massive intelligence failure — wouldn’t we be safer if the vast budgets of TSA and its partners around the world were diverted away from confiscating nail scissors and toward creating better information systems and better intelligence? Imagine if security officers in Amsterdam had been made aware of the warnings the underwear bomber’s father gave to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja. Or, for that matter, if consular officers had prevented him from receiving a visa in the first place.

This is conventional wisdom these days, as near as I can tell, so no points for originality. But it raises a question: we all hate TSA’s physical security procedures, but the fact is that we don’t much like the idea of tightening up TSA’s non-physical operations either. Several years ago, Congress told TSA to screen passengers more tightly, and the result was expanded watch lists, expanded no-fly lists, and the proposed CAPPS system, which was designed to identify all passengers and cross reference them with government records and commercial databases to produce a “risk score” that indicated the appropriate screening level for each traveler. Needless to say, everyone screamed about this, so it was scrapped and replaced by a more modest system called Secure Flight.

But if physical security is mostly eliminated, it seems inevitable that it will be replaced with beefed up intelligence and surveillance operations, as well as beefed up tracking of individuals a la CAPPS. But if that’s what we get, I wonder if we’re going to like it any better?

ONE MORE QUICK THING:

Or at least we hope. It’s fall fundraising time, and we’re trying to raise $250,000 to help fund Mother Jones’ journalism during a shorter than normal three-week push.

If you’re reading this, a fundraising pitch at the bottom of an article, you must find our team’s reporting valuable and we hope you’ll consider supporting it with a donation of any amount right now if you can.

It’s really that simple. But if you’d like to read a bit more, our membership lead, Brian Hiatt, has a post for you highlighting some of our newsroom's impressive, impactful work of late—including two big investigations in just one day and covering voting rights the way it needs to be done—that we hope you'll agree is worth supporting.

payment methods

ONE MORE QUICK THING:

Or at least we hope. It’s fall fundraising time, and we’re trying to raise $250,000 to help fund Mother Jones’ journalism during a shorter than normal three-week push.

If you’re reading this, a fundraising pitch at the bottom of an article, you must find our team’s reporting valuable and we hope you’ll consider supporting it with a donation of any amount right now if you can.

It’s really that simple. But if you’d like to read a bit more, our membership lead, Brian Hiatt, has a post for you highlighting some of our newsroom's impressive, impactful work of late—including two big investigations in just one day and covering voting rights the way it needs to be done—that we hope you’ll agree is worth supporting.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate