The government is constantly looking for ways to identify threats to national security before American citizens are threatened. Since the 1980s, the intelligence community has struggled with the challenges of monitoring electronic communication while protecting the privacy of its citizens. Journalist Shane Harris, the author of The Watcher: The Rise of the U.S. Surveillance State addresses these challenges and the solutions that the government is attempting to develop in his latest book. Also on the panel to comment on the book were former journalist, and analyst with the Cato Institute Julian Sanchez and Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies, at the Cato Institute, who acted as a moderator for the discussion.
After any terrorist attack, the intelligence community finds evidence that, if pieced together properly at the outset, would have led to information that could have prevented the attack. However, the general consensus is that the government continually fails to connect the dots. In the 1980s, John Poindexter suggested the establishment of Total Information Awareness, a program that would collect and monitor domestic information while encrypting the data to protect the privacy of citizens and ensure the loyalty of the analysts that received the data.
In the early 1980s the NSA experimented with various programs to find terrorists. The problem that became rapidly apparent was that the analysts had trouble making sense of the information that had been collected. Harris noted that “information in a bureaucracy equals power.” However, the government failed to find a way to connect the information that they have collected in a meaningful way.
Julian Sanchez commented that he agreed with some of the primary focus of Harris’ book; however, he noted that the book views “the world through a Poindexter lens.” He did acknowledge that the current situation is “the worst of both worlds.” The primary challenge is constantly changing technology and the way information is stored and distributed. As technology evolves, the perimeter around privacy and information access fluctuates, making it harder for legal boundaries to exist and be established.