America is in a long war against a resilient enemy capable of striking the homeland, but U.S. intelligence capabilities are falling short of meeting the threat. The San Bernardino attackers were not flagged, despite their repeated visits to jihadist websites, alarming posts on social media, and suspicious financial transactions. The Boston Marathon bombers evaded timely detection, as did the would-be shooters in Garland, Texas, who had exchanged dozens of messages with a known terrorist overseas.
Paris and San Bernardino exemplify the two types of threats: overseas-trained terrorists, and online-radicalized lone wolves. Both exhibit distinctive behavioral and communications patterns that can be detected—but only if intelligence agencies have the right data and tools to analyze it.
Yet Washington is blunting its surveillance powers. Collection of phone metadata under the Patriot Act was banned by Congress and finally ceased at the end of November. Collection of the contents of specific targets’ communications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has been dumbed down, with onerous requirements to secure the authorizing court order. The intelligence community feels beleaguered and bereft of political support. What’s needed is a fundamental upgrade to America’s surveillance capabilities.
Congress should pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database. Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed. That includes Presidential Policy Directive-28, which bestows privacy rights on foreigners and imposes burdensome requirements to justify data collection. Read more »