This Is Not Your Father’s Stock Market

The head of the British electronic spy agency GCHQ, Robert Hannigan,
created a minor flap last week in an
he wrote for the Financial Times.
In effect, Hannigan argued that more robust encryption procedures by private
Internet companies were unwittingly aiding terrorists such as the Islamic State
(IS) or al Qaeda, by making it harder for organizations like the NSA and GCHQ
to monitor online traffic. The implication was clear: The more that our
personal privacy is respected and protected, the greater the danger we will
face from evildoers.

It’s a serious issue, and democracies that want to respect individual
privacy while simultaneously keeping citizens safe are going to have to do a much
better job of reassuring us that vast and (mostly) secret surveillance
capabilities overseen by unelected officials such as Hannigan won’t be abused.
I tend to favor the privacy side of the argument, both because personal
freedoms are hard to get back once lost, but also because there’s not
much evidence
that these surveillance activities are making us significantly
safer. They seem to be able to help us track some terrorist leaders, but
there’s a lively debate among scholars over whether tracking and killing these
guys is an effective
. The fear of being tracked also forces terrorist organizations to
adopt less efficient communications procedures, but it doesn’t seem to prevent
them from doing a fair bit of harm regardless.

So here’s a wild counterfactual for you to ponder: What
would the United States, Great Britain, and other wealthy and powerful nations
do if they didn’t have these vast surveillance powers? What would they do if
they didn’t have armed drones, cruise missiles, or other implements of destruction
that can make it remarkably easy (and in the short-term, relatively cheap) to
target anyone they suspect might be a terrorist? Assuming that there were still
violent extremists plotting various heinous acts, what would these powerful
states do if the Internet was there but no one knew how to spy on it?

For starters, they’d have to rely more heavily on tried-and-true counterterrorism measures: infiltrating extremist organizations and flipping
existing members, etc., to find out what they were planning, head attacks off
before they occurred, and eventually roll up organization themselves. States waged
plenty of counterterrorism campaigns before the Internet was invented, and while
it can be difficult to infiltrate such movements and find their vulnerable
points, it’s not exactly an unknown art.
If we couldn’t spy on them from the safety of Fort Meade, we’d
probably be doing a lot more of this.

Second, if we didn’t have all these expensive high-tech
capabilities, we might spend a lot more time thinking about how to discredit
and delegitimize the terrorists’ message, instead of repeatedly doing things
that help them make their case and recruit new followers. Every time the United
States goes and pummels another Muslim country — or sends a drone to conduct a
“signature strike” — it reinforces the jihadis’ claim that the West has an
insatiable desire to dominate the Arab and Islamic world and no respect for
Muslim life. It doesn’t matter if U.S. leaders have the best of intentions, if
they genuinely want to help these societies, or if they are responding to a
legitimate threat; the crude message that drones, cruise missiles, and targeted
killings send is rather different.

If we didn’t have all these cool high-tech hammers, in
short, we’d have to stop treating places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and
Syria as if they were nails that just needed another pounding, and we might
work harder at marginalizing our enemies within
their own societies. To do that, we would have to be building more
effective partnerships with authoritative sources of legitimacy within these
societies, including religious leaders. Our failure to do more to discredit
these movements is perhaps the single biggest shortcoming of the entire war on
terror, and until that failure is recognized and corrected, the war will never

Third, and somewhat paradoxically, if we didn’t have drones
and the NSA, we’d have to think more seriously about boots on the ground, at
least in some places. But having to think harder about such decisions might be
a good thing, because it would force the United States (or others) to decide
which threats were really serious and which countries really mattered. It might
even lead to the conclusion that any sort of military intervention is
counterproductive. As we’ve seen over the past decade, what the NSA, CIA, and
Special Ops Command do is in some ways too easy: It just doesn’t cost that
much to add a few more names to the kill list, to vacuum up a few more
terabytes of data, or to launch a few more drones in some new country, and all
the more so when it’s done under the veil of secrecy. 

I’m not saying that our current policy is costless or that special operations
aren’t risky; my point is that such activities are still a lot easier to
contemplate and authorize than a true “boots on the ground” operation. By
making it easier, however, the capabilities make it easier for our leaders to
skirt the more fundamental questions about interests and strategy. It allows
them to “do something,” even when what is being done won’t necessarily help.

Lastly, if U.S. leaders had to think harder about where to
deploy more expensive resources, they might finally start thinking about the
broader set of U.S. and Western policies that have inspired some of these
movements in the first place. Movements
like IS, al Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, al-Shabab, or the Taliban are in some ways
indigenous movements arising from local circumstances, but they did not spring
up out of nowhere and the United States (and other countries) bear some (though
not all) blame for their emergence and growth. To say this is neither to defend
nor justify violent extremism, nor to assert that all U.S. policies are wrong;
it is merely to acknowledge that there is a causal connection between some of
what we do and some of the enemies we face.

But if some of the things the United States (or its allies) is doing are making it unpopular in certain parts of the world, and if some of
that unpopularity gets translated into violent extremism that forces us to
spend hundreds of billions of dollars trying to protect ourselves, then maybe we
ought to ask ourselves if every single one of those policies makes sense and is
truly consistent with U.S. interests and values. And if not, then maybe we
ought to change some of them, if only to take some steam out of the extremist

What I’m suggesting, in short, is that the “surveil and
strike” mentality that has dominated the counterterrorism effort (and which is
clearly reflected in Hannigan’s plea to let Big Brother — oops, I mean the NSA
and GCHQ — keep its eyes on our communications) is popular with government
officials because it’s relatively easy, plays to our technological strengths,
and doesn’t force us to make any significant foreign-policy changes or engage
in any sort of self-criticism at all. If we can solve the terrorist problem by
throwing money at it, and enriching some defense contractors and former
government officials
in the process, what’s not to like? 

To be clear: I’m not suggesting we dismantle the NSA, fire
all our cryptographers, and revert to Cordell Hull’s quaint belief that
“gentlemen [or ladies] do not read each other’s mail.” But until we see more
convincing evidence that the surveillance of the sort Hannigan was defending
has really and truly kept a significant number of people safer from foreign
dangers, I’m going to wonder if we aren’t overemphasizing these activities
because they are relatively easy for us, and because they have a powerful but
hard-to-monitor constituency in Washington and London. In short, we’re just
doing what comes naturally, instead of doing what might be more effective.

Win McNamee

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