Intelligence Gathering, the NSA, FBI and CIA, another Perspective

I recall with vivid clarity, the night George W. Bush made his AXIS of EVIL speech. Remember, he targeted Iran, Iraq and North Korea, but kept a lingering anger at Cuba, Libya, Syria, Belarus, Burma, and Zimbabwe.

Axis of Evil

Interesting that Afghanistan was not even mentioned and it has been our longest lingering conflict with “boots on the ground”.

In spite of all of the drama, war, conflict and maneuvering, after all of the billions spent and all of the lives lost, it seems that not much has changed with the Axis of Evil participants. The same groups are still in conflict, none of the nations can boast of significant improvements in lifestyle. It can be argued that Iraq, Iran and North Korea are all just as ‘conflict oriented’ today as they were before the Cheney/Bush wars.  We have hopes for the "kind" comments coming out of Iran and can only hope that the radicals of that nation will allow some progress in international relations there. The suffering of the Iranian people does not make them love the USA, therefore we applaud Obama and Kerry for working to dismiss economic punishment of Iran.

But, one thing of credit we must hand to former President George W. Bush. The United States remains the freest and most secure nation on earth, perhaps in part because of security policies that he put into place. Our Glass Buildings Convey Freedom and Light I was observing images of new corporate buildings in America. Have you ever considered that our newest office buildings are not built like fortresses, like many commercial buildings are designed in less secure nations? Many of our newest buildings are built with free and open glass designs, suggesting openness and freedom from worry about things such as terrorism or attacks. In some nations, new buildings are surrounded by walled compounds with building materials that are thicker and provide more protection for their insecure societies. 

Consider that our highway system is the most open “free” transportation system in the world. Any person can freely drive from one end of the nation to the other, without road blocks, searches, passes or passport inspections (assuming that the speed limit and basic traffic laws are observed).

Our rail system seems to be almost unguarded it is so free and the aviation system has its TSA security checks but in spite of that, most every American can fly to any city in the USA without being detained.  While the first few years after 9/11  TSA and Homeland Security over-reacted with ill conceived proceedures, but recently they seem to be a bit more balanced. 

I believe in personal freedom and personal rights. But I also appreciate the fact that much of our security is “out of sight”. It is refreshing to be in America where we do not see the halls of every building, airport and bus terminal lined with armed soldiers, like we see in some "autocratic" nations.

So gradually, in spite of the knee jerk reactions of some politicians after 9/11, I have come to appreciate the extremely effective information system of America that has kept us secure and free from being a nation that must live and work in a “bunker mentality”. Most Americans can look out windows from their homes and workplaces with little or no fear that an imbalanced religious or political radical is in process of attacking them.

Consider our movies and malls. In many nations on earth movies are a security risk and highly guarded.Movies are Guarded and then People Locked In In India, everyone entering a movie theater goes through security as tough at America’s TSA systems. And in India, when the movie starts, everyone is locked in, until it is over, for security reasons. So many bombs have been set off in movie theaters, India considers it a necessity. But in America, people come and go with no thought of fear.   Consider our malls. In some nations, every bag going in or out is checked, people are wanded, searched and checked by metal detectors. Not in our America. Our security is more descrete.  

Recently after shopping in Wal Mart in Indiana, I walked out to find our car wrecked.  As I looked, the manager of Wal Mart walked out and said: "Don't worry our security cameras got it all on film."  We were able to contact the young woman who crashed into our car in the parking lot, and she repaired the damage.  My attitude of those security cameras has changed. 

It seems to me, that America is still the “land of the free” and this freedom is no accident. So what if we are observed by dozens of security cameras as we walk and shop. At least we are safe and free. So what if a computer records our telephone calls or internet messages? Have we forgotten that those NSA, FBI and CIA workers are American patriots, working to protect us? And a good job they have done.

So when I see America “running” from the most effective and comprehensive intelligence system in the world, I am concerned. More information, tactics, disclosures of methods, have been disclosed to our friends and enemies in the past 18 months than in our nation’s history. We have lost friends and made new enemies as a result.  I feel that when an NSA employee defects to another nation or when an FBI or CIA worker goes to the other side, that it creates more risk for every American.

The Washington Post recently reported that “Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercepts and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications."  Most Americans have never considered this and it sounds outrageous, but in truth, it is what the American people have asked for. When we ask for the best security in the world, we must have the best intelligence gathering systems in the world to make it happen.  Balance is a key to good governance and leadership must make tough decisions.  We must ask the question: 

Where Do We Draw A Line on Intelligence Gathering vs Security vs Personal Privacy Rights?

             Is it good or is it bad?The NSA sorts a fraction of those 1.7 billion communications into 70 separate data bases. Do we lose some personal freedom and privacy when we consider that every email, every phone call, can be copied, monitored and catalogued? Yes. But the truth and fact of the matter is, that every nation has engaged in electronic monitoring since we had telephones and the internet. Try going to Dubai, Beijing, Russia, Israel or Tehran where the “bugging” is obvious, invasive and often absurd, it is so poorly done. Some have been clumsier about it than we have. Any educated person in America knows that every word he types or speaks into an electronic device can be monitored, but we have known this since Alexander Bell created the telephone. Why do we act so surprised at the reports of data gathering? The first rule of business when I opened my first bank, was that “Just assume that anything you say on a phone is being recorded by someone.” That was more than 40 years ago. Electronic intelligence gathering is a system invented and perfected in the United States, for us, the people. Our nation does it to protect the people, unlike China, Russian or Iran who use it to control the people. There is a difference. We demand security and freedom and this is how we keep security and freedom. Our constitution provides us with certain rights. But our system is set forth so that the rule of law, and representatives of the courts, review and rule on the extent of "monitoring". That is directly in place to protect our consitutional rights.

Two points are very important:

  1. Other nations use "bugging" and spying it to control freedom, they especially oppose freedom of speech.
  2. The USA  uses intelligence gathering, to protect the freedoms that we enjoy frm being destroyed by others who do not want or have our freedoms and our constitution.  The USA  is unique in that it encourages personal rights and freedom of speech  So is our right to be secure and fee more important than our right to have privacy?  I suggest that personal privacy is a blessing, but even that is lost if we lose the safety and security of our nation to terrorists or foreign powers.

In the USA this huge capacity for gathering and storage of data is increasing. The NSA (according to Fox News) is building a "Data Center in Utah that could hold 5 zettabytes of data, the biggest data bank in the world."

The NSA reportedly has approximately 40,000 employees, who constantly obtain, study and categorize data. Some call it the "Nerd capital of the world". The agency has huge funding that buys considerable energy and effort to protect our society.  No doubt, the cost of intelligence gathering will continue to increase.  This coupled with some of the most powerful computers on earth, creates an ability to organize information “relationships” that could indicate trends, plans or habits. Their computers are so big and so numerous  that one NSA campus alone uses as much electricity as the entire city of Annapolis.

The NSA facilities are significant and impressive as this image of the NSA location at Fort Mead demonstrates.NSA Campus And this is just one of many facilities. We see spider/crawler data gathering computer systems at work on our monitors originating all around the world and suspect that some to those are NSA facilities, or institutions with government contracts. The intent of the law says that private citizens cannot be monitored unless they are a threat to the USA. Some of those who monitor Americans are corporations such as Google, and some are foreign nations at work gathering data. Some nation’s intelligence system, snooping on another nation’s system as they monitor each other. But no system on earth can compare with the scope and power of the National Security Agency. The FBI and CIA certainly are significant players, but the NSA wrote the book on electronic intelligence gathering. Russia and Israel both spend considerable effort monitoring American communications, one to oppose us, the other to continue to get more money from us.

China is probably the king of intelligence and communication gathering in Asia.  I was working in Asia once when an official informed me that my hotel room in China was bugged. I laughed and said: “If those guys don’t have anything better to do than listen to me snoring and watching TV they must be pretty hard up.” Thousands of people in China monitor telephone calls and computer emails. Most people don’t have “state secrets” worth their time to listen but the fact that they do it seems to intimidate the people.

We have written articles critical of China and had our servers "attacked" in attempts to shut us down.  This is a new type of "cold war" in our world, where nations try to crash the systems of other nations. Russian govenment seems to have the same tactics as China. 

People in America, so far, are  not intimidated by data collection, probably most simply figure that the government that we elect and hire to keep us secure is on our side.   It would seem to me that some of the people who really get mad about monitoring are the ones who have secrets that they are afraid will be exposed. There is no doubt that criminals and giant corporations, and unscrupulous business leaders often may have issues that break the law, or do things harmful to the USA. Certainly some are radically opposed to “monitoring”. Certainly the "Do Nothing" Congress of the USA may have elected officials as corrupt as they are useless. So they would be opposed to having their secrets monitored.  But on the other hand, consider the TARGET fiasco where someone attacked their computer systems and got millions of electronic credit cards of people who had shopped Target. That disaster deeply hurt Target's sales, and I suspect that they would have welcomed some U.S.Government agency if they had observed and protected them from the robbery through electronic monitoring.  Target became the target. 

But humor aside there are serious spies and terrorists who we need to keep an eye and ear on. But it is implausible that any government agency of the USA would have an interest in the petty affairs of everyday Americans. It is plausible to figure that 99.9% of the data that they mine is put in “inconsequential” files. We wish to hope that the periodic "computer attacks" that hit American systems, are not coming from our government agencies, but are coming from criminals and often foreign nations. 

Americans know that the NSA, FBI and CIA all have considerable intelligence gathering capability. Perhaps the 1/10 of 1 % of the secrets that these agencies gather are potentially harmful to our nation. As for me, I am glad that we have people willing to protect our nation. Remember in this age, the first line of defense is not tanks and soldiers on the ground, it is information. A good intelligence system seems preferable than sending armed soldiers my the thousands, to walk the streets, glare at every person, and when they are suspicious breaking into homes or office. For some nations, that is their "intelligence and security" method.  Thank goodness we are not dominated by that type of system.

Good advice for those people and companies that don't want to be bothered about intelligence gathering is this:  

We are seeing a growing business in computer encryption and information walls and barriers to protect data.  Most Americans don’t need to create “walls” to secure your systems, or encrypt your conversations of your everyday life. Most Americans are simply trying to raise families, make a living and survive. More and more of the biggest secrets are never spoken aloud on an electronic device anyway. The most important secrets are whispered in an ear or carried by a courier. “Non technology” communication is becoming more prevalent with those who carry the huge secrets. Ironic how that technology eventually forces us backwards in communication isn’t it?

So, my point:

  1. Ours is the most powerful society with the most freedoms of any nation on earth.

  2. That freedom is often preserved and maintained by our government and our intelligence agencies.

  3. Our lives should be lived intelligently, with moderation and with discretion, always seeking 'More Light'.

  4. Alas beware of those folks who are paranoid about government snooping, they may be the ones with secrets.