Friday, May 26, 2006


NSA,CIA, and cocaine: 3 birds with 1 stone

Now that Gen. Hayden has been confirmed as the next CIA director, let's take a look into our future.

We can assume the NSA's version of TIA will find a new home at the CIA.  For the sake of argument, let's assume everyone involved in this program is committed to the rule of law and seriously interested in protecting America from threats.

Even if that is all true, we still have a problem.  How do you demonstrate the program's value to the people who pay for it without sharing classified information?  It turns out, Ronald Reagan had a solution to that sort of problem; he called it "trust but verify."   We can apply that approach to solve this impasse while meeting the legitimate needs of all the stakeholders.  Here's the proposed test:

Demonstrate the NSA program works by using it
to eradicate cocaine traffic into the United States.

In a previous posting, I calculated the probability of finding a terrorist plot by data mining massive data sets assuming no baseline information.  Based on those numbers, the odds of locating a terrorist plot were about 1 in a billion.  Let me put that in perspective.  You are about 300 times more likely to be killed by lightning.  Clearly we need a test with better odds of success.

Unlike future terrorist attacks, cocaine trafficking is a well-documented phenomenon.  There is no mystery where it is grown.  There is no mystery where it is processed.  There is no mystery how the cocaine gets into the country.  In other words, there are plenty of nodes to start with for any sort of network analysis.  That dramatically increases the prospects of finding useful relationships.

Many people think of "mules" as a major source of cocaine trafficking. Actually, the overwhelming majority of cocaine entering the US arrives via container shipping and general aviation.  So how many containers are coming into the country each year?  About 10 Million.  How many general aviation flights?  Less than a hundred thousand.  Those are big numbers, but they are peanuts compared to the 1 trillion phone records the NSA is supposedly data mining.

In addition to smaller numbers to search, cocaine trafficking also has a baseline history of interdiction data.  The Coast Guard, by itself, seizes one half to one third of all the cocaine entering the country.  We know where those ships came from.  We know who the shipping agents were.  We know where they were heading.  We know a lot about the supply chain.  The same is true for cocaine busts involving general aviation.

Here's the math:  Assume you have 10 Million container shipments and 100 have cocaine on board. Now assume your algorithm for detecting a suspicious transaction gives you a false positive 1 in a thousand times.  Assume your algorithm misses a suspicious transaction 1 in a thousand times.

The big difference between this test and the proposed terrorist surveillance program is we have cut our total number of events from 1 trillion to a mere 10 million.  That lowers the odds of finding a drug shipment to 1 in 100.  Let me put that in perspective.  That is more likely than getting dealt a straight in a game of poker!

Based on the numbers, a system that can locate just one terrorist plot should be able to locate well over 50% of the cocaine shipped into the United States. Add that to the cocaine already being seized by law enforcement and you will wipe out the cocaine trade.

You can increase the odds even more by focusing geographically. State and local officials seize about one third of the cocaine that gets past federal authorities.  When you break down those numbers by state, it turns out over 90% of those seizures occur in ten border states or ports of entry: Texas, Florida, Illinois, California, New York, Arizona, Missouri, New Jersey, Georgia, and Louisiana (in decreasing order).

The benefits of demonstrating this program's usefulness by eradicating cocaine traffic into the US would be clear to everyone.  Successful conclusion of this demonstration won't require publishing classified information. It won't require any acts of faith on the part of the general public. It won't require assaulting anyone's civil liberties. The results would be obvious and independently verifiable.  The benefits would be immediate and substantial. In addition to saving a lot of taxpayer money, we will also be denying a revenue stream to arms dealers and terrorists.

Finally, there is a residual benefit to this approach.  Many people are concerned about the possibility of some WMD being shipped into the country.  Anyone contemplating such an attack would have to think long and hard about their ability to evade detection if they knew they had to run a gauntlet even drug dealers could not beat.  I'm not saying this would prove the system will protect us from terrorists, but you have to admit it would be a hell of a deterrent.
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"Examining unexamined beliefs America accepts on faith value."

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Mything the Point of "Congressional Oversight"


There has been a lot of talk in the news recently about congressional oversight. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell whether "oversight" means “supervision,” or whether it means “lack of attention.” The Senate confirmation hearings for the new CIA Director are just the most recent example of this disturbing trend.

It certainly requires considerable oversight to overlook some of the questions Gen. Hayden refused to answer in open session. I’m sure some questions are answered best in private. However, it’s hard to believe he needs a closed session to say torture is not an acceptable method for interrogation.

For some reason, we are supposed to believe the appointment of Gen. Hayden heralds a sea change in the culture and operations of the CIA. Anyone trying to read the tea leaves for signs of change need look no further than this response: "I'm not Porter. I'm different from him. I'll probably end up doing some things differently." Parse that comment and it is clear he’s not promising very much. All he has to do to comply with that statement is take a different route to work in the morning, switch the brand of coffee they use for the office coffee pot, and wear a military uniform to work.

Pointing to that as evidence of change at the CIA would be a real stretch, but no one will ever be able to say he lied under oath. That’s important because we all know that has become the gold standard for accountability, responsibility and good governance with this administration. Everyone from the president on down has shown that anything goes as long as no one can prove you lied.

As bad as things are, I don’t think it’s fair to pin all the blame for this nonsense on the executive branch. When you consider Gen. Hayden's public statements of his respect for the unvarnished truth, transparency, adherence to rule of law, respect for congressional oversight, etc., you have to wonder why most senators were so reluctant to test that when they had him testifying under oath.

For example, Gen. Hayden claimed the NSA wiretapping system would have found some of the hijackers if it had been in place before 9/11. That is an interesting comment. Is he suggesting the FBI would have found two of the hijackers if they wiretapped the FBI informant who happened to be their landlord? Does he believe the NSA would have discovered the FBI was in possession of a laptop belonging to a man suspected of wanting to hijack airliners? Does he think that if the NSA had wiretapped itself they would have found the transcripts of calls between Al Qaeda operatives they failed to translate in a timely fashion? We’ll never know what Gen. Hayden meant because no senator bothered to ask him for any evidence to support his assertion.

It’s too bad the senators didn’t use this historic opportunity to cover substantive issues like constitutional encroachment. Their oversight on that issue serves as a confirmation of their newfound role as official innocent bystander. Here’s another line of questioning that no one bothered to pursue while they had Gen. Hayden testifying under oath:

He admitted he helped design the NSA wiretapping program.

He stated he was the top dog at NSA while the program was implemented.

He claimed he has never intentionally testified in a misleading way.

He claimed to respect the need for limiting programs to lawful operations.

He claimed he got legal advice for the program from many sources, including the Justice Department.

If all that is true, then here’s a simple question, "How do you reconcile all of that with the fact that a Justice Department effort to investigate the legality of the NSA wiretapping program was shut down by the NSA?" Answering that question is more than an exercise in “archeology” or hindsight. The answer to that question has direct implications for the future of domestic intelligence gathering under Gen. Hayden.

We already know that Big Brother is out there watching us. Total Information Awareness by any other name still operates with an incredibly broad sweep. Public statements about that program by both Gen. Hayden and Adm. Poindexter make it clear why they are interested in building the world’s largest database. They are trying to develop a Department of Precrime. The only difference between their version of the program and the one envisioned by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick is theirs will not be fettered by oversight, so they will never have to confront the uncomfortable problem of a Minority Report. I find it hard to believe that was an oversight.

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