America's Chronic Overreaction to Terrorism
by Ted Koppel

The country's capacity for self-inflicted damage must have astounded even Osama bin Laden.

June 28, 2014, will mark the 100th anniversary of what is arguably the most eventful terrorist attack in history. That was the day that Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

In one of those mega-oversimplifications that journalists love and historians abhor, the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, Sophie, led directly and unavoidably to World War I. Between 1914 and 1918, 37 million soldiers and civilians were injured or killed. If there should ever be a terrorists' Hall of Fame, Gavrilo Princip will surely deserve consideration as its most effective practitioner.

Terrorism, after all, is designed to produce overreaction. It is the means by which the weak induce the powerful to inflict damage upon themselves—and al Qaeda and groups like it are surely counting on that as the centerpiece of their strategy.

It appears to be working. Right now, 19 American embassies and a number of consulates and smaller diplomatic outposts are closed for the week due to the perceived threat of attacks against U.S. targets. Meantime, the U.S. has launched drone strikes on al Qaeda fighters in Yemen.

By the standards of World War I, however, the United States has responded to the goading of contemporary terrorism with relative moderation. Indeed, during almost a decade of terrorist provocation, the U.S. government showed the utmost restraint. In February of 1993, before most of us had any real awareness of al Qaeda, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who would later be identified as the principal architect of 9/11, financed an earlier attack on the World Trade Center with car bombs that killed six and injured more than 1,000.

Five years later, al Qaeda launched synchronized attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 220 and injuring well over 4,000 people. In October 2000, al Qaeda operatives rammed a boat carrying explosives into the USS Cole, which was docked in Yemen. Seventeen American sailors were killed and 39 were injured.

Each of these attacks occurred during the presidency of Bill Clinton. In each case, the U.S. responded with caution and restraint. Covert and special operations were launched. The U.S. came close to killing or capturing Osama bin Laden at least twice, but there was a clear awareness among many policy makers that bin Laden might be trying to lure the U.S. into overreacting. Clinton administration counterterrorism policy erred, if at all, on the side of excessive caution.

Critics may argue that Washington's feckless response during the Clinton years encouraged al Qaeda to launch its most spectacular and devastating attack on Sept. 11, 2001. But President George W. Bush also showed great initial restraint in ordering a response to the 9/11 attacks. Covert American intelligence operatives working with special operations forces coordinated indigenous Afghan opposition forces against the Taliban on the ground, while U.S. air power was directed against the Taliban and al Qaeda as they fled toward Pakistan.

It was only 18 months later, with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, that the U.S. began to inflict upon itself a degree of damage that no external power could have achieved. Even bin Laden must have been astounded. He had, it has been reported, hoped that the U.S. would be drawn into a ground war in Afghanistan, that graveyard to so many foreign armies. But Iraq! In the end, the war left 4,500 American soldiers dead and 32,000 wounded. It cost well in excess of a trillion dollars - every penny of which was borrowed money.

Saddam was killed, it's true, and the world is a better place for it. What prior U.S. administrations understood, however, was Saddam's value as a regional counterweight to Iran. It is hard to look at Iraq today and find that the U.S. gained much for its sacrifices there. Nor, as we seek to untangle ourselves from Afghanistan, can U.S. achievements there be seen as much of a bargain for the price paid in blood and treasure.

At home, the U.S. has constructed an antiterrorism enterprise so immense, so costly and so inexorably interwoven with the defense establishment, police and intelligence agencies, communications systems, and with social media, travel networks and their attendant security apparatus, that the idea of downsizing, let alone disbanding such a construct, is an exercise in futility.

The Sunday TV talk shows this past weekend resonated with the rare sound of partisan agreement: The intercepted "chatter" between al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was sufficiently ominous that few questions have been raised about the government's decision to close its embassies.

It may be that an inadequate response to danger signals that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi last September contributed to an overreaction in the current instance. Clearly, it does not hurt, at a time when the intelligence community is charged with being overly intrusive in its harvesting of intelligence data, that we be presented with dramatic evidence of the program's effectiveness.

Yet when all is said and done, al Qaeda—by most accounts decimated and battered by more than a decade of the worst damage that the world's most powerful nation can inflict—remains a serious enough threat that Washington ordered 19 of its embassies to pull up their drawbridges and take shelter for fear of what those terrorists still might do.

Will terrorists kill innocent civilians in the years to come? Of course. They did so more than 100 years ago, when they were called anarchists - and a responsible nation-state must take reasonable measures to protect its citizens. But there is no way to completely eliminate terrorism.

The challenge that confronts us is how we will live with that threat. We have created an economy of fear, an industry of fear, a national psychology of fear. Al Qaeda could never have achieved that on its own. We have inflicted it on ourselves.

Over the coming years many more Americans will die in car crashes, of gunshot wounds inflicted by family members and by falling off ladders than from any attack by al Qaeda.

There is always the nightmare of terrorists acquiring and using a weapon of mass destruction. But nothing would give our terrorist enemies greater satisfaction than that we focus obsessively on that remote possibility, and restrict our lives and liberties accordingly.

Mr. Koppel is a special correspondent for NBC News and news analyst for NPR.

At the heart of Edward Snowden's decision to expose the NSA's massive phone and Internet spying programs was a fundamental belief in the people's right-to-know.

My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them he said in an interview with the Guardian.

From the State's point of view, he's committed a crime. From his point of view, and the view of many others, he has sacrificed for the greater good because he knows people have the right to know what the government is doing in their name. And legal, or not, he saw what the government was doing as a crime against the people and our rights.

For the sake of argument -- This should be called The Snowden Principle.

Why is Obama concerned about Snowden's revelations on the NSA. Snowden merely revealed metadata? Obama assures us that metadata should not be a concern to us.

You can't connect the dots if you can't collect the dots, but..... terrorist planning, attempts and attacks are too rare to support the creation of valid predictive models. False positives waste taxpayer dollars, needlessly infringe on privacy and civil liberties and misdirect the valuable time and energy of the men and women in the national security community.

The hysterical and vicious reaction of the establishment to Snowden's exposures has laid bare the degree to which anti-democratic, authoritarian and even fascistic conceptions are embedded in the outlook of the American state and media. Within these layers there is an increasingly rabid hostility to the Bill of Rights and, behind that, the American people.

Democracy is collapsing in America under the weight of imperialist militarism and the concentration of wealth and power in the richest one percent of the population.

Working people and youth, both in the United States and around the world, must take up the defense of Edward Snowden, as well as Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. Support must be built up in work places, at colleges and schools, and in working class neighborhoods. Their defense must become the spearhead for the development of a mass movement in defense of democratic rights.

How long do they expect rational people to accept using the word "terror" to justify and excuse ever expanding executive and state power? Why are so many in our government and press and intellectual class so afraid of an informed public? Why are they so afraid of a Free Press and the people's right to know?

We can't fight for Internet freedom around the world, then turn around and destroy it back home. Even if we don't see the contradiction, the rest of the world does.

If thousands of NSA analysts can gain access to actual emails and phone calls -- can we be certain this information hasn't been used for insider trading?

Nothing To Hide, You Say?

As James Duane, a professor at Regent Law School and former defense attorney, notes in his excellent lecture on why it is never a good idea to talk to the police:

Estimates of the current size of the body of federal criminal law vary. It has been reported that the Congressional Research Service cannot even count the current number of federal crimes. These laws are scattered in over 50 titles of the United States Code, encompassing roughly 27,000 pages. Worse yet, the statutory code sections often incorporate, by reference, the provisions and sanctions of administrative regulations promulgated by various regulatory agencies under congressional authorization. Estimates of how many such regulations exist are even less well settled, but the ABA thinks there are "nearly 10,000."

If the federal government can't even count how many laws there are, what chance does an individual have of being certain that they are not acting in violation of one of them?

As Supreme Court Justice Breyer elaborates:

The complexity of modern federal criminal law, codified in several thousand sections of the United States Code and the virtually infinite variety of factual circumstances that might trigger an investigation into a possible violation of the law, make it difficult for anyone to know, in advance, just when a particular set of statements might later appear (to a prosecutor) to be relevant to some such investigation.

For instance, did you know that it is a federal crime to be in possession of a lobster under a certain size? It doesn't matter if you bought it at a grocery store, if someone else gave it to you, if it's dead or alive, if you found it after it died of natural causes, or even if you killed it while acting in self defense. You can go to jail because of a lobster.

If the federal government had access to every email you've ever written and every phone call you've ever made, it's almost certain that they could find something you've done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations. You probably do have something to hide, you just don't know it yet.

Phones Leave a Telltale Trail

The April robbery at the Cartier store in Chevy Chase, Md., was brazen and quick. After grabbing 13 watches valued at $131,000, the suspects fled in a waiting car and melted into traffic. It was one of more than a dozen similar capers that had stumped police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But, in recent weeks, the FBI was able to arrest two men. Cellphone records from Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile USA and Sprint Nextel Corp. placed the suspects near the Cartier store at the time of the robbery, as well as near other heists, the FBI alleged in court filings. The T-Mobile records also allegedly showed the phone moving along the same path traveled by the suspects as police chased them.

Paula Broadwell's affair with former CIA Director David Petraeus was uncovered last year as a result of phone metadata in a stalking inquiry.

This kind of information is at the center of the debate unleashed after a contractor leaked the details of the National Security Agency's phone-data collection program. The NSA program wasn't used in the ongoing robbery investigation, but the concept is the same. The so-called metadata represents one element of the voluminous digital trail left by most Americans in their daily lives. Each individual crumb might seem insignificant, but combined and analyzed, this data gives police and spies alike one of the most powerful investigative tools ever devised.

The data doesn't include the speech in a phone call or words in an email, but includes almost everything else, including the model of the phone and the "to" and "from" lines in emails. By tracing metadata, investigators can pinpoint a suspect's location to specific floors of buildings. They can electronically map a person's contacts, and their contacts' contacts.

The NSA, through secret court orders served to U.S. telecommunications firms, scoops up metadata relating to almost all calls made into and within the U.S., which it can later query as part of a terror investigation. U.S. officials say that kind of work, in concert with other techniques, has helped thwart "dozens" of terrorist plots in the U.S. and overseas. Critics charge it represents an invasion of privacy.

The typical smartphone user can give off a total of nearly 100 pieces of highly technical data through calls, texts and other activities, according to research by Tracy Ann Kosa, a digital-privacy expert at the University of Ontario. This information includes the time that phones make contact with cellphone towers, the direction of the tower with respect to the phone and the signal strength at the time.

Ms. Kosa said much of the data is "insignificant on its own." But "every little piece counts," she said. "Think of it like footsteps—or calories."

One of the most dramatic examples of how metadata can be used came in the criminal investigation that separately uncovered retired Gen. David Petraeus's extramarital affair and ended his tenure as Central Intelligence Agency director.

An FBI investigation into a stalking complaint led agents to obtain location data from email addresses used to send the alleged threats, according to U.S. law-enforcement officials. FBI agents discovered the sender had used computers at a several hotels. Agents asked the hotels to provide lists of guests who'd used business centers around that time. That led them to Paula Broadwell, Mr. Petraeus's biographer. The data was used as probable cause to obtain a court order to monitor Ms. Broadwell's email accounts. Agents soon realized from her emails that the two were having an affair.

The woman who received the allegedly harassing emails, Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, said in a lawsuit filed later against the FBI that the bureau's investigation took off after agents took a single IP address from an email sent to her last June. The FBI said it closed the stalking investigation without filing any charges.

A U.S. law-enforcement official said the Petraeus case should not lead to privacy worries. The official said law enforcement is required to have a specific investigative purpose to collect and look at metadata.

Intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have been using metadata in their investigations for decades. Central Intelligence Agency officers routinely rifle through so-called pocket litter found on captured terrorist suspects and give information such as phone numbers to the NSA.

A cat-and-mouse game has evolved, with terror suspects frequently swapping SIM cards, or phone identification cards, to confuse intelligence agencies, former officials said. The U.S. has countered by devising how to monitor the phone and the SIM card separately.

The number of cellular base stations that serve a single floor of an office building equaled or surpassed the number of standard cell towers in 2010 and continues to grow, University of Pennsylvania engineering professor Matt Blaze told Congress last year.

The increase in metadata has transformed the way intelligence agencies conduct investigations with domestic data. Traditionally, investigators had to meet various legal standards to collect any data, such as connecting the data they wanted to seize with a specific suspect.

Under the NSA phone program, the government collects domestic phone metadata without a specific investigative lead. Trained analysts only search the database in conjunction with a terrorism investigation, authorities say.

Intelligence agencies "basically reimpose at the level of analysis the standards you might ideally have for collection," said Timothy Edgar, a former top national-security privacy lawyer in the Bush and Obama administrations.

Mr. Edgar said the increasingly specific location data raises concerns about potential violations of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Once a person can be located within a building, the monitoring more closely resembles a search that would traditionally require a warrant.

The NSA program is accompanied by privacy restrictions, Obama administration officials say. To search the database, the government must have "reasonable suspicion" that the basis for the query is "associated with a foreign terrorist organization," they say. Search warrants approved by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are required before the contents of the calls may be monitored.

Some useful metadata isn't retained very long by phone companies, according to people familiar with the evidence-gathering. That could explain why in court orders phone companies have been instructed to turn over information daily.

The program's supporters note the Supreme Court has ruled the public has no reasonable expectation of privacy for information it turns over to a third party, such as a phone company. That 1979 ruling, however, predated cellphones. Moreover, cellphone technology has changed dramatically since the inception of the NSA data program in the early 2000s.

"On one hand, this could equip the government to electronically follow you around in public," said Jeremy Bash, until recently Pentagon chief of staff. "But even if they were to physically follow you around, you would not need a warrant for that," he said.

Mr. Bash added it is nonetheless "a fair question" whether metadata should trigger heightened Fourth Amendment scrutiny, because communications technology has changed so much.

"It's possible that 'dataveillance' could come under higher judicial scrutiny," he said, using a new term of art that means the ability to surveil people through their data trail.

—Devlin Barrett and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries contributed to this article.

Write to Evan Perez at and Siobhan Gorman at

A version of this article appeared June 15, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Phones Leave A Telltale Trail.

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