There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. (George Orwell, 1984, Chapter 1)
Our world, sixteen years after 11 September 2001, has changed dramatically in both subtle and obvious ways. We scarcely notice one of the most all-encompassing changes, namely the loss of privacy in almost every facet of our lives. Cameras track us everywhere we go. Our credit card payments betray our every purchase. Our cell phones share our GPS locations. We voluntarily tell people where we are, where we’re going, what we’re eating, and what we’re thinking on social media platforms.
Mostly, we relinquished our illusion of privacy without a peep. Our language shows the voluntary nature of our loss: We share with people, and simultaneously, we share with our governments. Once upon a time in the West, we trusted our governments to spy only on suspects. If they gathered enough evidence, they might arrest those suspects. But now our governments “surveil” those whom it deems “persons of interest.” If those persons act “suspiciously,” they may be “detained.”
Presumably, we allowed these changes to occur because of 9/11, specifically, because our intelligence agencies had failed. Surely, if a small band of terrorists could bring down skyscrapers in Manhattan and strike the Pentagon, someone must have failed somewhere. We can’t deny that. But exactly where did that failure occur?
I used to work in one of the intelligence services. As a Russian linguist, I listened to transmissions from the Warsaw Pact. That’s about all I care to say about my old job in a public forum. Despite the passage of time, the fall of the USSR, and the fact that almost everything I did has been declassified, discussing details still makes me uncomfortable. The rest of what I write here will be generalized.
Suffice it to say, I engaged in collection. I collected communications intelligence, or what we called COMINT. I also collected electronic intelligence or ELINT. Both of these are a form of signals intelligence or SIGNIT. Collectors also engage in first-line analysis, but they also rely on dedicated analysts, people whose job is to make sense of collected data.
Essentially, the overall goal of intelligence agencies is to cast a wide net over all possible sources of information, including SIGINT and HUMINT (human intelligence), and to convert mountains of data into actionable intelligence. To do that, collectors sort through data to find information. Analysts tie that information together into knowledge.
You’re probably aware of the DIKW Pyramid. Ideally, we hope to turn data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. In the end, the intelligence communities create distilled bits of knowledge that national command authorities can use to create effective policies. We hope our transmitted knowledge will translate into wise action. It bubbles up the chain of command until it reaches the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
And that brings us to a notorious piece of intelligence — a bit of knowledge, presented to George W. Bush on 8 August 2001.
What you see above is the President’s Daily Brief, PDB 080601. Later, Bush would say there wasn’t enough specific information in that PDB to do anything. Of course, today at the very least we would expect the military as well as police agencies to increase their levels of awareness and security. But on that day in August 2001, the president is reported to have said to a rather distressed CIA briefer:
You’ve covered your ass now.
His reaction was to do nothing. And so we sailed on into September, the intelligence communities knowing that something was going to happen, but with the national command authorities declining to act on that knowledge.
Thanks to the 9/11 Commission hearings, we now know that at the lower levels, we had gathered a great deal of information about the hijackers. Moreover, we know that observers and collectors raised red flags. But much of that information did not find its way into the knowledge provided to policy makers.
We have to admit the intelligence mistakes leading up to the events of 11 September 2001. Unfortunately, those acknowledged errors have provided the excuse for massive increases in the amount of collection as well as the ever-widening circle of targets. Pundits and leaders from all over the political spectrum have told us we need to surrender some personal liberties in exchange for security.
However, this conclusion depends on an unexamined assumption: that the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks stemmed from a failure of collection. And further, that the remedy for these failures is to collect more information from more individuals and groups of people, no matter who they are or where they live. “You don’t have anything to hide, do you?”
But what if that assumption is wrong? What if we possessed the information we needed in July or August of 2001, but failed to analyze that information correctly? What if we actually had enough knowledge to warrant preventive action if our leaders had shown enough wisdom to do so?
We tend to forget now that the Bush administration’s choice to ignore terrorism as a major threat arose from their belief that we should focus on rogue states and their ability to obtain weapons of mass destruction. The previous administration had also recognized this threat, but they viewed the more imminent threat as non-state actors engaged in decentralized, distributed acts of terrorism.
As a result, even despite the 9/11 attacks, Bush managed to refocus the nation away from non-state actors (i.e., bin Laden) and back on state actors with suspected WMD (Saddam Hussein and the “Axis of Evil”). As you may recall, the 9/11 Commission’s investigations revealed that according to Condoleezza Rice, President Bush had said he was “tired of swatting at flies” — a statement that caused Senator Bob Kerrey to ask, “Dr. Rice, we didn’t — we only swatted a fly once, on the 20th of August, 1998. We didn’t swat any flies afterwards. How the hell could he be tired?”
Of course, none of that means the U.S. government hasn’t found the threat of terrorism useful. Our continuous state of fear (ironically, in the home of the brave) has made it easier for the Bush and Obama administrations to acquire more executive power, hide more information, and encroach further on civil liberties.
The choice to blame 9/11 on a failure of collection is a deadly double-edged sword. As I’ve already alluded to, it means we’ve all become Winston Smith, under continuous surveillance from a government that suspects us of being “persons of interest.” It puts us all at the mercy of the national security state.
But the other edge is arguably more lethal. We now collect vast amounts of information, many orders of magnitude more than we ever did before. Without a commensurate improvement in our analysis capabilities, whether we can prevent another 9/11 will depend largely on luck. And unless our national command authorities act wisely upon the knowledge they receive from our intelligence agencies, as they failed to do in August of 2001, it will happen again.