Government Surveillance Can’t Prevent Attacks Like Orlando. We Shouldn’t Expand It Now.

We are already incredibly surveilled, yet this did nothing to keep us safer. Increasing surveillance won’t help prevent future attacks.

Branko Marcetic

A vigil for the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting in Warsaw, Poland. (MiłośćNieWyklucza / Flickr)

There’s much that’s depressingly familiar about the news coming out of Orlando, where Omar Mateen committed the worst mass shooting of its kind in U.S. history: the heartbreaking images and stories of survivors and the relatives of those gunned down; the almost immediate offering of empty platitudes by politicians conspiring to do nothing about yet another bloodbath carried out with a high-powered weapon; the just-as-immediate resort to naked bigotry by the ignorant and the unscrupulous; the eagerness to declare the shooter in some way associated with foreign terror threats before the bodies of the dead are cold.

What could have stopped the Orlando shooting? Certainly, transitioning fully to an authoritarian state that locks its citizens up for thought crimes would have, with the Orlando shooter shuttled to prison at the first instance that he was in some way unstable. Of course, this is the kind of society that few of us would want to live in.

Many have already written and spoken eloquently about this sadly predictable course of events. But one familiar aspect of the Orlando shooting should be further examined: the shooter, like so many other recent perpetrators of high profile attacks, was known to authorities before the act. 

According to law enforcement officials, the attacker was questioned three times by the FBI over 2013-14 for suspected ties to terrorists, and was briefly placed on a terrorist watch list. The FBI first investigated the shooter for 10 months after he claimed to have ties to al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. During this time, it also placed him under surveillance, recording his phone calls and using informants to determine if he’d been radicalized. It investigated him again when it turned out he casually knew an American man who went on to carry out a suicide bombing in Syria. The FBI found that his ties were non-existent in the first and tenuous in the second. 

The news of the shooter’s claimed links to terrorist groups, his run-ins with federal authorities and his 11th hour pledge of allegiance to ISIS before committing the murders have prompted politicians to call for further surveillance measures. Both parties’ presidential frontrunners-cum-nominees called for strengthened surveillance powers not long after the shooting took place, while Senate Republicans are planning to push through a law that would let the FBI get intimately revealing electronic records — such as location information, browsing history and email metadata — without a court order.

There are many possible avenues for preventing more mass shootings, whether terrorist-inspired or not. Increased spying powers are not likely to be one, not least of all given that the shooter had already been known to authorities.

In fact, this is a pattern that has been repeated throughout virtually every major terrorist attack in the West of the last few years. Whether the attacks have taken place in member nations of the Five Eyes alliance — the five-member group of countries that have the United States’ powerful surveillance technologies at their disposal — or outside of it, the agencies tasked with protecting their countries’ citizens have time and again missed threats that appeared to be under their very noses.

All three men who carried out the Brussels bombing in March were known to have links to the attack in Paris that had taken place seven months earlier, and one attacker had even been deported from Turkey no less than two times for his suspected militancy, something Turkish authorities had warned the Belgians about to no avail. The Paris attack itself was an intelligence failure of some proportion, with at least three of the attackers known to French authorities beforehand, complete with more unheeded warnings from Turkey. Earlier that year, it turned out the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo killings had similarly been on the authorities’ radar: Their names were on a U.S. terrorist watchlist for years. And years before they had even been under French surveillance. 

North of the border, it’s a similar story with the two men who committed terrorist acts in Canada in October 2014. The gunman who shot a soldier and tried to storm parliament was known to authorities when his email turned up on the hard drive of another individual charged with a terrorist-related offence, while the lone wolf” ISIS supporter who ran over two Canadian soldiers had been monitored by Canadian police due to his recent radicalization. He had even had his passport seized and been put on a list of 93 high-risk travelers.”

In the United Kingdom, Michael Adebolajo was arrested after trying to join a terror group in Kenya in 2010. Despite this, the UK’s intelligence services failed to properly investigate Adebolajo — with MI5 never requesting his landline records, which would have shown contact with a Yemeni extremist, and the GCHQ (the British equivalent of the NSA) not reporting his contact with an al-Qaeda member — giving him the opportunity to murder soldier Lee Rigby in 2013. Likewise with one of the six men who attempted to bomb a rally of the English Defence League — an Islamophobic, far-right group — in 2013, who was already under surveillance for a separate plot. 

Meanwhile, in Australia in 2014, a man took 18 people hostage in a Sydney café three days after the country’s domestic security agency had received no less than 18 calls about inflammatory Facebook posts he had made. He had also been earlier sentenced to 300 hours of community service for sending offensive letters to dead Australian soldiers, and at the time of the attack was on bail for 43 sexual and indecent assaults.

Finally, in the United States, before this latest killer, there were the gunmen who tried to shoot up a Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas organized by Islamobphoe Pamela Geller, one of whom had been convicted in 2011 of lying to investigators about his plans to engage in violent jihad” in Somalia. And before them, there were the Boston bombers, with the elder Tsarnaev brother having been both investigated by the FBI and placed on a CIA terror database a mere months before committing the attack. 

This is exactly the opposite of what defenders of the existing surveillance regime promised the public will happen with broad surveillance powers in place. The expansion of government surveillance since September 11 is absolutely necessary to keep people safe and thwart future attacks, the argument goes. Many officials cite the emotionally powerful example of September 11 itself to justify these programs’ existence, arguing that had they been in place at the time, security agencies would have been able to connect the dots and stop the attack from happening. 

Security agencies’ repeated failure to connect the dots since then with these programs actually in place should cast doubt on these statements. Despite government claims that the NSA has helped foil 54 terrorist plots, reviews of the evidence have shown that the agency’s expanded powers either had no role or were unnecessary in all but one incident: the case of a Somali-born US citizen who sent $8,500 to a terrorist group fighting in his home country — hardly the stuff of an episode of 24.

In fact, virtually all of these countries had substantial surveillance powers in place when many of these attacks took place. Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States are all part of the Five Eyes alliance, giving them access to far-reaching surveillance programs like the NSA’s PRISM and XKeyscore, allowing them to collect and access everything from browsing history and emails to phone metadata and calls. 

In fact, on the basis of greater security, Australia had passed a law significantly expanding the Australian government’s surveillance powers a mere few months before the Sydney siege” took place. Since July last year, France has had a law on the books that vastly broadened its security agencies’ capabilities, including allowing warrantless eavesdropping and forcing internet and phone service providers to install technology that would notify authorities of suspect online behavior. As extreme as these measures are, none did a single thing to prevent any of these attacks from happening.

And yet despite this long track record of failure, in the wake of the Orlando shooting, we’re again hearing calls for expanded surveillance powers. Speaking yesterday, Donald Trump predictably called for race-based policy of government spying, demanding intelligence gathering like we have never had before” and for intelligence agencies to start looking at the mosques,” complaining that Muslim communities don’t report to authorities about bad apples.” Trump may have missed the incident where members of a Los Angeles Muslim community, so alarmed by the rhetoric of the informant the FBI had sent to monitor and goad them, reported him to the Bureau.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton suggested having tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter tracking and analyzing social media posts” and other online activities to prevent future attacks like Orlando taking place. The plan would not only be alarmingly Orwellian — presumably requiring Silicon Valley employees to ceaselessly monitor what people do and write on the Web — but would also be wildly impractical, given the sheer volume of social media data produced every minute.

In fact, adding yet more volumes of data for security agencies to sift through would be the one thing guaranteed to make people less safe. NSA whisteblower William Binney recently pointed out that the NSA is so swamped with information, much of it irrelevant, that it’s unable to carry out its core function, a common complaint the agency’s employees make privately, as leaks have revealed. The situation is the same in the UK, with a secret 2010 briefing document warning of intelligence failure” from the overcollection of data. 

Many will point out that the Orlando shooting wasn’t an instance of security agencies failing to connect the dots, but a case of a lone wolf” attacker, supposedly privately radicalized without leaving an electronic paper trail to be followed. The kind of surveillance Western governments have engaged in is less useful for discovering threats like this, goes the argument. This is true — it’s still not possible, fortunately, for governments to peer into people’s heads and to find out what’s in their hearts. 

Yet as former NSA chief Michael Hayden has said, such attackers are the new normal” when it comes to terrorism, as seen in the terror attacks in San Bernardino, Garland and Charleston. If this is the case, it’s even harder to make a plausible case for yet more surveillance.

What could have stopped the Orlando shooting? Certainly, transitioning fully to an authoritarian state that locks its citizens up for thought crimes would have, with the Orlando shooter shuttled to prison at the first instance that he was in some way unstable. Of course, this is the kind of society that few of us would want to live in. One of the negatives of living in an free, open and democratic society is that we can’t simply jettison people’s rights wholesale anytime we find something about them suspicious. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to tens of thousands of innocent people being put into camps by state fiat, a fact that should worry anyone fearful of big government.” 

We should also be careful about urging on still more extreme anti-terrorism laws before the facts of the incident are settled. In the space of a few days, the back story of the Orlando shooter has morphed from one of a homophobic terrorist wannabe to what looks more and more like a mentally disturbed man deeply uncomfortable with his own sexuality. As more details have trickled through, it appears he was also motivated by anger at US foreign policy, telling police he wanted the United States to stop bombing his country,” likely referring to Afghanistan, where his parents are from. His actual motivation may be one, none or, most likely, a combination of these, but until what drove this troubled individual is firmly established, vesting the state with yet more power to snoop through our private lives is premature, to say the least.

Policymakers, officials and people in general will have to consider which measures are actually effective for preventing future attacks like the one in Orlando. Re-examining the easy availability of guns would be a start, as might thinking of ways to foster a culture that doesn’t encourage hatred of specific groups. What exact form such policies will take will have to be a product of democratic debate. But if the history of intelligence failures over the last three to four years alone tells us anything, it’s that when that discussion happens, more surveillance should be left out of it.

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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.

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