There is much discussion on the right side of the blogosphere as to just how damning the recent revelations about data-mining and gathering phone records are to the new administration. On the one hand, the Wall Street Journal and Bush-era officials defend the practice as essential to national security.
Rising in opposition are conservatives who rightly point out the blatant hypocrisy of the Democrats embracing and expanding programs they once denounced. These people are in turn called hypocrites because they tolerated similar programs under Bush.
Long-time readers of this blog know that we are naturally sympathetic to the needs of national security and the imperative of protecting the public. This need transcends politics and the change of adminsitration.
That being said, there is a thing called a "learning curve" and what we have discovered since the dark post-Sept. 11 days is that all the data-mining in the world is useless without the will to do anything with it.
The most recent terror attacks were not developed by skilled covert operatives whose clever and encrypted communications could only be discovered by the most sophisticated equipment available. Far from it - the Boston Bombers were self-proclaimed jihadis that we were warned about by the Russians who openly traveled to get their terrorism training under the very noses of our security.
Similarly, Maj. Hassan Nidal openly proclaimed his desire for jihad and the U.S. Army did nothing about it. No amount of data-mining will overcome the political correctness that has blinded our institutions to even the most obvious threats.
At the same time, we have learned that the IRS, EPA and other agencies determined that the Tea Party was the one enemy they would pursue to the ends of the earth, using every tool in their possession to destroy. This is the realization of the classic paranoid conspiracy theory - the government builds up its power in response to an external threat and then uses it against domestic opponents for utterly unrelated reasons.
One need not be a rabid libertarian to now undestand that these agencies and their secretive powers are a threat to our freedoms - one must only have a healthy dose of common sense.
For all its computing power, the NSA was helpless to find the Boston Marathon Bombers - that fell to a guy checking his boat.
Similarly, all the phone records on the planet couldn't stop a radicalized Army major from shooting up his own base.
I should make it clear that I do not blame the NSA for its efforts. Like all bureaucracies, they want to build out their edifice to the maximum extent possible. All departments want the shiniest toys, the largest number of employees and the minimum amount of accountability they can achieve. It is inherent in human nature.
It is up to our elected officials to step in and stop this from happening, and they have done a poor job in this respect.
Like with gun control, I might support the surveillance state if it actually worked. But we know it doesn't. While the whiz kids play with computers, the enemy builds bombs with pressure-cookers. Just as with gun control, when the inevitable massacre happens, no one will be held accountable for the failure to connect the dots and the citizenry will be blamed for not giving up even more of their liberties.
If there is once trend in American intelligence capabilities it is to consistently misread the intentions of our enemies. Blinded by our own prejudices, complacent in our superior technology, we assume that the adversary will do what we want - playing into our own limited defenses rather than bypassing them.
Pearl Harbor is said to loom large in the American psyche, but the lesson there is not danger of the sneak attack but our own ineptitude in detecting them. Failing to note the signs of an attack was not unique to that instance. We also failed to detect the German buildup at Kasserine Pass, failed to detect their buildup at the Bulge, missed the obvious signs of impending Chinese intervention in Korea - in fact one could write a book on all the Cold War stuff our best and brightest got wrong, up to and including the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The point is that admitting one's own weakness is the first step in fixing it. We still keep pretending that it is all a matter of finding a "smoking gun" when we have countless examples of them being offered up to us only to ignore them in favor a theory we like better.
So we monitor email, web pages and Skype with great dilligence and hassle crippled grandmothers at airports while waving through military-age men fresh from summer training camp in Dagestan. Oh, don't get me wrong, I think that if we tried to use racial profiling we'd screw that one up, too. It is a mentality and the hardest thing to fix is stupid.
More than 200 years ago some stuffy white guys without any internet or iPads figured out that giving up liberty won't buy any more security - it just makes you a servant to the state. It says something about our pathetic educational system that people are today acting like this is a new discovery.
Enough. Tear the thing down.