You Can Take the 9/11 Security State From My Cold, Dead, Top Secret Hands
By Spencer Ackerman May 11, 2011
Osama bin Laden’s death was the end result of a massive investment in surveillance and spy tools that arose after the 9/11 attacks, designed to end the emergency that al-Qaida posed. But according to the chairman of the House intelligence committee, rolling back that huge security state after bin Laden’s death would not only miss an opportunity to destroy al-Qaida once and for all, it would effectively give bin Laden one last laugh.
“This is the time to step on the gas and break their back,” Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and former FBI agent, told the Council on Foreign Relations in a Wednesday speech. The choice, as he laid it out, is between ratifying the post-9/11 redefinition of liberty and security and getting attacked again.
“All the tools” of the security state created after the Twin Towers fell need to be retained, Rogers argued. The Patriot Act, whose most controversial surveillance provisions are to expire on May 27? Keep it. The doubling of intelligence cash, which now stands at $80 billion annually? Keep it. The explosion of drones and other spy technologies that “didn’t exist ten years ago?” Keep it all.
Rogers argued that lesson of the bin Laden raid is that ballooning the surveillance state paid off — and that scaling back spycraft just leaves the U.S. vulnerable. Back in the 1990s, the government viewed “the intelligence community as the opportunity for the peace dividend for the fall of the Soviet Union,” he said. “We see what a serious mistake that was.”
And there are even more spy advances on the horizon, Rogers said, like better methods for analysts to navigate the flood of drone and satellite data coming in every day. He didn’t give any specific examples, but the Air Force is building a supercomputer-in-sky inside a giant blimp that will crunch drone footage before beaming it down to soldiers on the ground.
Not many people are calling for an intelligence rollback — especially not right as a team of spies sifts through a trove of hard drives, removable media, recording devices and cellphones taken from bin Laden’s compound. Besides, al-Qaida these days is more of a global franchise of terror groups than a strict hierarchy. And it’s not like bin Laden’s former crew are the only terrorists on the block.
By contrast, Rogers’ remarks come as the House Armed Services Committee is considering a measure that would reauthorize and expand the war to unnamed affiliates of al-Qaida. But, some wonder, if bin Laden’s death doesn’t prompt a chance to reconsider the security state, whatever will?
Rogers conceded there’s room for trimming around the edges. An audit conducted on his committee found “a couple hundred million bucks” worth of savings — out of $80 billion in annual spy spending. And he said that it might make sense to consolidate federal-state “fusion centers” and joint task forces for the dissemination of terrorism threat data.
Outside of that, Rogers made a robust case for keeping the 9/11 state as it is. His speech presented the entirety of intelligence advances — interrogations, surveillance, human spying — as part of an inexorable chain of events leading to bin Laden. (Interestingly, while he credited harsh interrogations with leading to at least some info on bin Laden’s couriers, he said, “I don’t think you have to use torture to get information; I’m a former FBI guy.”) Lose any part of it, and the country’s vulnerable to the next attack.
Left unsaid was whether any of these post-9/11 spy measures — passed as emergency provisions — could be jettisoned after the U.S. “breaks the back” of al-Qaida; or whether the America that bin Laden indirectly created will remain the terrorist’s enduring legacy.