Posted by: Steve Coplan | August 17, 2006

Conspiracy theory redux

Over the last few days I’ve had the opportunity to watch a lot more of the cable news channels than I usually do (which is generally not all), thanks to a business trip to Redmond. I am bemused by some of debate on these channels resulting from the exposure of the Heathrow plot centering on whether further erosions of civil liberties are justified in order to thwart terrorist threats. Setting aside for the moment the question of the timing of the revelation of the plot (given the transparent pattern over the past years of using this type of information to shift public opinion), the only way to justify the validity of the debate is to assume the optimal course of action to counter terrorism is to remove any barriers to exposing personal information of millions of people in order to identify the needle in the haystack. The methodology implied would involve ongoing top-down analysis of enormous amounts of data in place of actual intelligence and investigation, of the type that the UK government used to identify the Heathrow plot. So what’s being proposed is strengthening the state’s ability to investigate individuals based on a statistical convergence with a baseline that is constantly shifting (currently expanded to all Muslims) based on the failure of US federal agencies to generate bottom-up accurate and actionable intelligence. That baseline is in turn determined by specific attempts at terrorism that the current approach either fails to identify or are exposed by third parties (ie the UK government). Of course, in order to justify expanding these powers and weakening judicial oversight, the threat of terrorism and its protean character have to be hyped to sway public opinion. Plus, since these investigators are aware that the Bush administration had a pre-existing agenda to reduce oversight of the executive branch and Republicans will provide political cover, it serves their purpose to counter any momentum that Democrats get from further evidence of incompetence, lack of oversight and a generally ill-conceived strategy.

 

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