Obama’s NSA completely missed the rise of Islamic militants in Iraq

Americans have been endlessly told by President Barack Obama, intelligence officials, and a number of politicians from both parties that the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance programs are absolutely necessary to protect the United States’ from acts of terrorism both in the homeland and abroad. Well, that’s the talking point, at least.

But the deteriorating situation in Iraq, where brutal Islamic militants taken control of swaths of the country, seemingly unnoticed by the Obama administration until a couple of weeks ago. That’s something Conor Friedersdorf mentioned yesterday over at The Atlantic:

Without presuming to speak for any individual, the typical “NSA-hater” would love nothing more than for the NSA to focus its intelligence capabilities on war zones where anti-American fighters plausibly threaten the lives of soldiers or diplomatic personnel, and away from Angela Merkel and every cell-phone call Americans make. Spying on ISIS, however intrusively, is fine by me.

That said, events in Iraq seem to have taken us by surprise, despite the fact that the NSA is totally unencumbered, both legally and politically, in the intelligence it can gather there. And even if the seeming surprise is an illusion, even if the NSA anticipated the fall of cities to Islamic militants, knowing didn’t stop it. That isn’t a knock on the NSA. It’s a statement about the limits of signals intelligence. The NSA didn’t stop the underwear bomber or the Times Square bomber or the shoe bomber either. That’s not a knock on the NSA. They can’t know everything. And if they could, that would be a lot more dangerous than terrorism.

Friedersdorf was responding to Andrew Sullivan, who opined about the need to “ratchet up our ability to monitor” groups like ISIS. That’s entirely within the purview of the what the NSA should be doing, however. It should be conducting surveillance on foreign targets that intend to do the United States harm.

But, as Friedersdorf notes, the NSA missed potential terrorist attacks. In fact, the White House Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology pointed out that bulk data collection program “was not essential to preventing terrorist attacks.”

A separate study conducted by the New American Foundation confirmed that the program “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity.”

No reasonable person suggests that the United States shouldn’t conduct surveillance on foreign terrorist groups, like ISIS and al-Qaeda. But that’s where the focus should be, on terrorists, exclusively, rather than wasting valuable resources to conduct unconstitutional domestic surveillance on innocent Americans.

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