The mass surveillance debate in Washington has long been framed as a tradeoff between liberty and security. The basic assumption is that in order to get greater security, we may have to give up some liberty. But the attack in Brussels Tuesday morning is just the latest reminder that sacrificing liberty doesn't come with any security promises -- and may in fact make us less safe.
As European and U.S. intelligence services have begun to rely heavily on surveillance and data analysis, the opportunity cost has been human intelligence. Entire neighborhoods have become black boxes to European security services, even as data and metadata are gobbled up, stored and analyzed by the gigaton.
Meanwhile, terrorist networks have turned to burner phones and easily available encryption technology, leaving the big eye in the sky with nothing to see. Without eyes on the ground, Western governments have become blind.
"After the Paris attack police found boxes of unused phones. Metadata collection is pretty useless if every conversation happens on a different phone and collection doesn't focus on the individual," Kristofer Harrison, a former top intelligence official with the State Department and Department of Defense during the Bush administration, who is now advising the Ted Cruz campaign, told The Huffington Post. "You get all the downside without it working well against the folks we need to be monitoring. A net cast broadly and then sorted by an algorithm doesn't net terrorists -- which is the whole point."
And regardless of what Sen. Cruz (R-Texas) is now saying about “patrols” in Muslim neighborhoods, the GOP candidate’s voting record suggests he at least partly gets it. Cruz broke with the majority of his party to vote for a June 2015 law that placed some limits on the National Security Agency bulk phone data collection program exposed by Edward Snowden.
Governments have managed to infiltrate and disrupt insurgent networks for thousands of years -- long before a massive server built in the Utah desert was spooking local residents.
Michael Horowitz, head of business development at the Levantine Group, a London-based private intelligence firm, warned that the “over-reliance on technology" for intelligence gathering has made the United States intelligence agencies complacent to terror cells that either do not use digital media, or have figured out how to circumvent those high-tech tactics.
“In a sense, the technological collection tools are also the victim of their own successes: From the Al-Qaeda operatives protecting Bin Laden in Pakistan who decided to ‘go low-tech,’ to the ISIS militants using encrypted messaging services (created to protect our own privacy), jihadists have been able to adapt to the intelligence agencies' ‘giant ear,’” Horowitz said.
A net cast broadly and then sorted by an algorithm doesn't net terrorists--which is the whole point. Kristofer Harrison, Ted Cruz campaign advisor
Then there is the challenge of having enough analysts to sift through enormous quantities of information. When your proverbial haystack is that big, it is awfully hard to find a needle.
"The intelligence community sometimes makes me think of a taxi company that would continue to buy new cars without taking into consideration the number of drivers it can field," Horowitz said. "It may look good on paper, but the truth is no one is driving these cars."
Sophisticated technology is no replacement for the painstaking cultivation of human intelligence sources.
“In a world of increasingly sophisticated encryption and small, networked cells, nothing beats a human source. Period,” said Carl Jensen, a former FBI official and director of the intelligence and security studies program at the Citadel, a Charleston, South Carolina-based college.
Republicans like to lament the decline of the military due to inadequate funding from the Obama administration, but they rarely if ever mention human intelligence, which many believe is an area of national defense that could benefit significantly from greater investment.
“About the only time over the last 25 years the U.S. has had a really effective human intelligence network was during the surge in Iraq from 2006 to 2008,” said Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and a retired U.S. Navy commander.
By contrast, he notes, adversaries, rivals and allies alike, including Iran, China and Israel, have developed sophisticated human intelligence networks through sustained investment.
The challenge, according to Harmer, is that human intelligence is expensive, risky and lacking the kind of political clout wielded by the defense technology industry.
“From a policy and budget perspective, it's a lot easier to cut funding for human intelligence programs that are, by design, covert and have no real policy constituency, than it is to cut hardware procurement programs (spy planes, satellites, drones, listening posts) that have a significant political constituency, if for no other reason than they are associated with high-tech manufacturing jobs in congressional districts,” Harmer concluded.
Not everyone agrees that human intelligence collection is possible in all of the circumstances where the U.S. needs timely information about security threats. And years of neglecting our “humint” capabilities becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: After another attack, tactics like data sweeps gain currency because they are immediately available.
Bruce Hoffman, the director of security studies at Georgetown University, argues that it would be very hard for the U.S. to train spies capable of penetrating the Islamic State in Syria, for example.
“Infiltration I would think is not possible,” Hoffman said. “In the circumstances, vacuuming up data and sifting through it is the only viable option.”