Since the NSA stopped collecting metadata about telephone calls on Sunday, May 31, 2015 (or was ordered to stop, anyway… with this government, you never really know), many have declared that we are a less safe nation today.
And this is true; we ARE a less safe nation today. But as usual, both the answer and the foundation for it are largely misunderstood, in a nation in which a biased press refuses to tell the whole story, and a disinterested public refuses to study the issues until the third presidential debate rolls around every four years.
To answer the question – whether or not we have indeed taken a step backward in safety – requires a two part answer. There is a short-term view, but there is also a long-term view, because safety isn’t about one single tool in the toolkit of our military; it’s about the big picture, a combination of foreign policy, immigration policy, and almost everything else a government does.
The Metadata Collection
Since the passage of the Patriot Act, the NSA was able to require that telephone companies – not all, but many – turn over the most basic elements of phone call records to the government. What phone number did this phone number call? From what phone number did this phone number receive a call? What country did that call go to or come from? How long did it last?
You can’t do a lot with this information, without actually hearing the call. But you can do some things, if you already have a starting point. You can identify possible associates if there is reason to suspect a crime. You can build an understanding of a network. You can develop at least circumstantial evidence if a person is talking to a known criminal. You can find out who else to watch.
Of course, you need a court order to use the information and dig further, but at least it’s there. Or at least it was.
This kind of information is critical police work, not just helpful when hunting terrorists, but also when hunting other criminal activities that involve organizations rather than individuals. With the mafia, with crime gangs, with drug lords, with kidnapping rings, you look for their contacts, their associates, their partners.
Does that sound at all reminiscent of any other kind of prosecution?
The IRS and SEC perform audits to see if a company has practiced tax fraud or money-laundering. They perform audits of investment houses to see if a company has engaged in securities fraud or insider trading. Customs performs audits of importers and exporters to see if a company has properly or improperly claimed certain duty rates, marked products with the right origin statement, claimed NAFTA or CAFTA benefits. The government looks at years-worth of data all the time; that’s how government auditors spend their lives.
But there is one key difference. The importer and exporter is obliged by law to retain his import and export invoices and free trade agreement certificates for many years, in case of an audit. The stockbroker, banker, manufacturer and distributor, too, must retain his transactional records for years and years (in the USA, that’s a period of seven years, most of the time, though it varies). Every company must have a rigorous record retention policy. The government doesn’t hold onto these records; they just require the private sector to hold onto them, until there is a legitimate suspicion of a violation to justify an audit.
Why the difference here? Why were the phone companies EVER required to turn over that data to the government to hold? Why didn’t they just set up the same mandatory record retention policy that the rest of the business world has?
Phone companies have always retained this kind of information, themselves, for a while… typically, just for long enough to get their billing out, and respond if a bill is challenged. For this reason, many phone companies dump this data after a few months; they see no need to hold onto it longer.
But we could always have just treated these phone records the same way we treat other forms of mandatory record retention in the private sector… we just never did.
Why? Perhaps because, by the time the issue arose, early in the 21st century, the very idea of a “private sector default” no longer existed in the mindset of the Washington bureaucrat.
Any sane person can see the solution: extend the same kind of recordkeeping requirements – seven years or so – to phone records that are required of the manufacturing and banking communities. There’s no constitutional violation because there’s plenty of precedent for the requirement, and there’s no illegal search and seizure because the information doesn’t get turned over to the government until there’s a legitimate investigation and a judicially-authorized court order.
And best of all, placing this unfunded (though inexpensive) obligation on the private sector – the phone companies - is free to the government. Such a solution requires no massive data repository in the west, with buildings and agents and lawyers and guards and utilities and electric bills and I.T. resources and hardware and software and computer security. The solution is cheap.
Hmmm. Maybe that’s why, a decade ago, it didn’t enter their minds.
The Big Picture
So, yes, the loss of this information does make our nation marginally less safe. Losing any tool in our defensive war against islamofascist jihad is indeed a negative, a step backward.
But to really address the question on the table – Are we less safe? – we need to look at a much broader picture. After all, you can take away a soldier’s handgun and give him an M-16, and he won’t be less safe. You can take down a steel chain-link fence but replace it with a brick wall, and you won’t be less safe for the trade. You can remove a suit of chain-mail, and replace it with modern Kevlar, and your soldier will be better for the loss of the chain-mail, not worse.
So what is the broader picture today? As we remove this one tool in the toolkit – a good one, but by no means the only one – what else have we done in recent years?
Well, the Obama administration helped to topple a fragile allied government in Egypt, helping to place a Muslim Brotherhood government there. Fortunately, General al-Sisi replaced that one with an anti-terrorist government again, but it’s been a hard road.
The Obama administration has done all it can to undermine our primary ally in the region, Israel. Fortunately, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government has stayed strong, despite the Obama administration’s illegal use of American tax dollars in opposing Likud in their recent election.
The Obama administration weakened our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq so quickly that ISIS in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistran were able to flourish, gaining territory at an alarming rate. ISIS in particular is almost incomprehensibly barbaric. Only those who remember the Holocaust can even have a frame of reference for this particular enemy.
The Obama administration has been gradually releasing prisoners – foreign terrorists, domestic terrorists – gradually emptying the prison camp at Guantanamo, even in one famous case, trading multiple mass murderers for a single traitorous defector. As if it wasn’t enough that ISIS can recruit thousands of fresh jihadists per week, this administration is intentionally releasing new officers to return to command them!
The Obama administration has been drydocking ships, sending soldiers and sailors home, and generally shrinking our military so that our readiness in case of a hot crisis is compromised. A major, unanticipated foreign crisis could not be met with the force that the United States used to have at our disposal.
Even those few who have been allowed to remain in military service have been hamstrung by “Rules of Engagement” that leave our soldiers almost defenseless, even in warzones.
As the military has been purged of combat-tempered senior officers, the experienced leadership that a military needs in case of flare-ups has been dissolved. The United States of America, for the first time since the isolationist era of the 1930s, are today truly unready.
It is a dangerous world. Yes, it has always been a dangerous world; that mere statement is nothing new.
But the United States of America had long been a superpower, a stabilizing force for right that couldn’t bring a golden utopia to earth, of course, but that could, at least, protect itself and its allies from the worst of the world’s dangers.
This current administration, however, has done something new. Rather than replacing the sidearm with an M-16, it replaced it with an empty holster. Rather than replacing the chain-link fence with a brick wall, it replaced it with an unguarded, shifting red line in the sand. And rather than replacing the chain-mail with a Kevlar suit, it replaced it with a sport shirt and mommy jeans.
Are we less safe today? Oh yes.
But not because of the loss of a massive metadata warehouse alone.
We are less safe today because, two elections in a row, our electoral system was corrupted and abused in a way that enabled the election of a corrupt and destructive imposter. Our nation is less safe because this administration has been undermining our nation’s security – and the security of our allies – for over six years now.
And we are less today, too, because we have twenty months more of this to go before there is any hope for relief.
Copyright 2015 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. He studied military history at Marmion Military Academy and political science at Northwestern University, and studied government waste and corruption as a near-lifelong resident of Illinois.
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