Loose Canons

NSA’s Porn Trackers

Tracking porn sites won’t save U.S. intel.

By 12.11.13

UPI
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According to the chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, Americans are less safe from terrorist attacks than they were a year or two ago.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal) said, according to a Washington Post report, that terrorist groups are more numerous and have more sophisticated, hard-to-detect bombs. That story included Cong. Mike Rogers’s (R-MI) statements that al Qaeda is growing and that terrorists are adapting to a strategy of smaller attacks.

Rogers, according to that same report, said al Qaeda is changing because groups around the world that used to operate independently are joining with al Qaeda.

This is no time to joke about Obama’s campaign rhetoric claiming that al Qaeda was dead and GM still alive because of him. Rogers and Feinstein are as well informed on these matters as anyone in Congress, and what they say must give us pause.

Once again we are faced with the question of whether our intelligence apparatus is as good as it can be and whether its assets are being applied to the best advantage. The answer to that is an unfortunate — and possibly tragic — no.

We know, from the multitude of leaks by Edward Snowden, enough to demand that Feinstein, Rogers, and their committees undertake a far more energetic oversight than has been evident in the past six years. I don’t mean we should begin another witch hunt à la Frank Church’s committee of the 1970s. I mean go after the NSA, the CIA, and the whole lot of alphabet-soup agencies to make sure they’re doing everything possible to catch terrorists before they strike.

We know, from the same leaks, that the NSA — almost certainly at White House direction — has focused too much of its energies inward, such as at the phone “metadata” of U.S. citizens. We know that the FISA Court has chastised the agency — and its Justice Department lawyers — for misrepresenting the facts on that and other matters.

And now we know, from yet another Snowden leak, that the NSA has decided to spend some of its energy and time tracking the porn use by potential jihadists.

Why then is the NSA is taking its time to try to “discredit” some jihadists’ credentials by tracking the perverts’ use of online porn websites? The idea, according to a BBC report, is that “prominent, globally-resonating foreign radicalizers” would be tracked and then, somehow, the information would be made available somewhere to discredit them.

Is that worth the trouble? Hardly.

I have a hard time believing that “online promiscuity” won’t be forgiven by the fanatics who lead and follow such “radicalizers.” If the al Qaeda leadership of bin Laden’s day excused the 9/11 hijackers of drinking alcohol and hiring prostitutes — and they did — why should we believe that the new leaders and followers of al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hezbollah, and all the rest wouldn’t find “online promiscuity” permitted by some obscurity in their religious dogma?

Of course they would.

The porn tracking is evidence that some things — like locating Taliban founder Mullah Omar — have been put in the “too hard” pile. And it may be evidence that the NSA has fallen prey — like so many other federal agencies — to employees’ viewing porn sites not to track terrorists but for their own gratification. It’s a waste of time and should be stopped in favor of doing more to discover and act against those who are planning to attack us.

Yes, it’s a good idea to track the “radicalizers” who turn others into terrorists. That was the rationale behind the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a perfectly justifiable act. There must be many others such as he who should be dealt with in the same way. But let’s not waste the time of intelligence organizations like NSA in trying to convince their followers that they’re impure because they look at porn.

These are all the things the House and Senate Intelligence Committees should be investigating. There’s too much time being spent, and wasted, on side issues that don’t get us the kind of actionable intelligence that led to the deaths of bin Laden and Awlaki.

There are those who will say that the NSA is the root of all evil, that we need to rein in the intelligence community so that more Americans’ rights aren’t sacrificed to intelligence.

And there are those such as the president, who still insist on closing the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and refuse to send any newly captured terrorists there for intelligence gathering purposes as well as imprisonment.

What is needed is not another decimation of our intelligence community as Jimmy Carter’s CIA Director Stansfield Turner accomplished. Intelligence is a tool of government and, as Mike Rogers said the other day, the people who gather it aren’t the bad guys. What is needed is a vigorous — much more vigorous than the public has been made aware of — scrub down of intelligence practices by congress. If the NSA wants to collect all the metadata on ever Verizon customer who’s ever made a call, they should be prohibited by legislation.

The rest of these criticisms is the wrongheaded common wisdom we get from the media and the Inside the Beltway crowd.

The scandals — both real and imagined — of NSA’s conduct only prove that methods and means of intelligence gathering aren’t being done in accordance with the needs of national security. If the law needs to be changed to accomplish that, let’s get on with it. If the intel gatherers are getting bad direction from the White House or their other bosses, that guidance needs to be changed. If their priorities are wrong — and they demonstrably are — their bosses need to be straightened out by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees and the law changed as appropriate.

While they’re at it, they ought to bring up Eric Holder for a public hearing and grill the heck out of him in an effort to end Obama’s embargo on sending more captured terrorists to Gitmo. Remember, please, dear reader, George Tenet’s memoir. The former CIA director said that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” — which were neither torture nor war crimes — yielded more and better intelligence than all the other intelligence agencies combined. Keep Gitmo open indefinitely and bring back the EITs.

As I’ve written many times in this space, a large part of the answer is “jointness.” When American troops invaded the island of Grenada, the Navy couldn’t talk to the Air Force (neither could the Marines), and nobody wanted to bother talking to the Army. We were very lucky there wasn’t a large force of Cuban regulars there to oppose the invasion.

What happened, as a result, was the Goldwater-Nichols reform bill that forced the services to cooperate. They have to live fly, sail, march and hit the beaches together: it’s the law. The result is that our network-centric military cooperates and operates more effectively than any other in the world (or at least it did until sequestration took hold, but that’s for another day).

What the sixteen intelligence agencies need is an intelligence reform bill modeled on the Goldwater-Nichols bill. Force the intel agencies to live together and cooperate. If that’s done, intelligence consumers will have more and better intelligence to act on. Then, maybe, Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri and more of their ilk will either spend the rest of their lives at Gitmo or just join their ancestors.

If we aren’t safer from terrorist attack than we were a year or two ago, Congress damned well has the duty to find out why.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.