The Problem Isn’t Too Little Spying … It’s Too Much
Former top NSA officials have repeatedly said that the NSA is collecting TOO MUCH information on Americans to be able to stop terror attacks.
The Intercept reports that current mid-level NSA officials confirm that the NSA is gathering TOO MUCH information… and it’s making it impossible to focus:
“We in the agency are at risk of a similar, collective paralysis in the face of a dizzying array of choices every single day,” the analyst wrote in 2011. “’Analysis paralysis’ isn’t only a cute rhyme. It’s the term for what happens when you spend so much time analyzing a situation that you ultimately stymie any outcome …. It’s what happens in SIGINT [signals intelligence] when we have access to endless possibilities, but we struggle to prioritize, narrow, and exploit the best ones.”
The document is one of about a dozen in which NSA intelligence experts express concerns usually heard from the agency’s critics: that the U.S. government’s “collect it all” strategy can undermine the effort to fight terrorism. The documents, provided to The Intercept by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, appear to contradict years of statements from senior officials who have claimed that pervasive surveillance of global communications helps the government identify terrorists before they strike or quickly find them after an attack.
The documents suggest that analysts at the NSA have drowned in data since 9/11, making it more difficult for them to find the real threats. The titles of the documents capture their overall message: “Data Is Not Intelligence,” “The Fallacies Behind the Scenes,” “Cognitive Overflow?” “Summit Fever” and “In Praise of Not Knowing.” Other titles include “Dealing With a ‘Tsunami’ of Intercept” and “Overcome by Overload?”
[One NSA document], titled “Too Many Choices,” started off in a colorful way but ended with a fairly stark warning: “The SIGINT mission is far too vital to unnecessarily expand the haystacks while we search for the needles. Prioritization is key.”
An amusing parable circulated at the NSA a few years ago. Two people go to a farm and purchase a truckload of melons for a dollar each. They then sell the melons along a busy road for the same price, a dollar. As they drive back to the farm for another load, they realize they aren’t making a profit, so one of them suggests, “Do you think we need a bigger truck?”The parable was written by an intelligence analyst in a document dated Jan. 23, 2012 that was titled, “Do We Need a Bigger SIGINT Truck?” It expresses, in a lively fashion, a critique of the agency’s effort to collect what former NSA Director Keith Alexander referred to as “the whole haystack.” The critique goes to the heart of the agency’s drive to gather as much of the world’s communications as possible: because it may not find what it needs in a partial haystack of data, the haystack is expanded as much as possible, on the assumption that more data will eventually yield useful information.
The author of a 2011 document … stated, “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.”
Another document, written by an intelligence analyst in 2010, bluntly stated that “we are drowning in information. And yet we know nothing. For sure.”