Misunderstanding Orlando

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting of over 100 innocent people at the Orlando nightclub, a wide range of experts and commentators have sought to place blame for this horrific act and to identify measures that would avoid future attacks of this kind. Gun control advocates quickly rush to see this as a "gun control" issue - it really isn't. Others see it as a counter-ISIS problem and a need to surveil Muslims in the U.S. more carefully - they too are at least somewhat misdirected. The core of the solution, if there is one, is that it is really a data collection and analysis issue that can be solved.

Leaving the politics and inflammatory rhetoric aside for the moment, it is undeniable that virtually all of the data that would have at least alerted the authorities to the problem existed in one form or another, and were either lost, ignored, or not combined in a form that would have made a difference.

The Orlando gunman Omar Mateen had been the subject of FBI investigation at least twice, and by their own reports, the FBI closed the case as they saw nothing further to do. As with other closed cases and individuals dropped from terrorist watch lists, there is no good reason not to at least maintain a database of those closed and dropped cases for future reference. The needed technology is trivial, and there are no real cost or privacy issues.

Clearly the FBI cannot maintain every possible case as "open" when there is no current data to support on ongoing investigation, but this is not to say that relevant data on some individual will not come up in the future. There is also a fundamental issue in that the FBI always thinks in terms of criminal investigations, and in terms of "cases" and "investigations" that are either open or closed, rather than in terms of an intelligence problem looking for evidence of a future crime where much is still unknown.

At a minimum, this argues for a serious review of the various lists involved and how they are managed, even after possible suspects are deleted. With good reason the infamous "no fly" list has already received its share of bad publicity, and contain the names of Congressman, journalists and others for no good reason which the federal government refuses to explain at all. Certainly those removed from the list should not be denied aircraft boarding or the legitimate purchase of firearms. But at least having these data available for integration with other data is essential to the solution. This is what the military and the intelligence community refer to as "data fusion."

Mateen's lawful acquisition of the firearms and ammunition raises additional issues. While the Second Amendment is and should be sacrosanct, some 80 percent of the American people believe that background checks should be required for such purchases. This makes good sense. What makes no sense is to require such checks for purchases at a gun store but not at a gun show. In this case, however, the issue is not relevant because Mateen made his purchase at a gun store and did pass the required background check.

What would be most useful and indeed less objectionable to the NRA and others would be the generation of a computer record upon the purchase of a gun or ammunition, so that it could be automatically compared to the FBI database of current (and former) watchlist suspects to generate an alarm. A similar process takes place with the purchase of every airline ticket and is totally transparent to air passengers. Here the data record generated by the airline, called a "PNR record", is transmitted to the Department of Homeland Security to be checked against their terrorist watchlist. Creating such a parallel system for guns and ammunition would not violate anybody's rights under either the Second or Fourth Amendments.

Similarly, arguments about banning the sale of AR-15 rifles or similar weapons are also misdirected and useless in this context. As sold, the AR-15 is not an "assault" weapon as many continue to argue, nor is it a fully-automatic weapon as sold. Admittedly it can be converted to being fully-automatic with the installation of a part that can be illegally but readily obtained for about $20 and installed in 10 minutes by a gunsmith. Even with the AR-15 off the market, there is a wide range of alternative firearms that can easily accomplish the same horrific end.

A critical source of data that could be mined to warn of an impending attack lies in the extensive use of social media by not only Omar Mateen in the recent Orlando case, but by virtually every other terrorist in recent years. Following the Orlando massacre, it was found that Mateen had in fact made various Facebook postings about his interest in violent acts using five Facebook accounts to write posts and make searches about the Islamic State. "Now taste the Islamic state vengeance," he posted, denouncing "the filthy ways of the West." In these posts Mateen, called on the U.S. and Russia to stop the bombing campaign against ISIS and pledged allegiance to the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, asking that "may Allah accept me" and later added that "In the next few days you will see attacks from the Islamic state in the USA."

Most authorities agree that such public Facebook postings are not "private" and protected from search under the Fourth Amendment, even under the most rigorous interpretation of that constitutional protection. It should then be possible to construct software to search for these type of postings and at a minimum be able to compare them with the other data, such as those from watch lists, former watch list subjects, and gun store purchases. This type of "connecting the dots" is a practical and reasonable approach to preventing another incident like those in Orlando and San Bernardino. A key lesson from Orlando is that the "dots" did exist and could have been connected. The fact that it did not happen speaks to a continued failure to embrace the technologies that should be employed to make a difference.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., when over 3,000 Americans lost their lives to al Qaeda terrorists, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiated the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program based on the concept of integrating a wide range of data bases in search for clues to a future attack. Unfortunately TIA, later renamed the Terrorism Information Awareness program, fell victim to adverse concerns about government mass surveillance and was defunded by Congress in 2003.

Still this concept is more viable than ever, particularly in light of the emergence of social media in the past decade and its extensive use by not only ISIS but by the vast majority of all that have come to join or support ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Taking a serious look at the data that comprise the "dots" and the technology to connect them is possibly the only viable approach to finding terrorists before they strike again and saving the lives of more innocent Americans