Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Learnable lessons from Manning, Snowden and inevitable others 15 – the fallacy of absolute security and its allure 1

Posted in business and convergent technologies, in the News by Timothy Platt on December 8, 2013

This is my sixteenth posting on what is becoming a series of leaks and unauthorized disclosures of classified US government documents that relate to its War on Terror (see John Peter Zenger, Henry L. Stimson, Edward J. Snowden and the challenge of free speech and the first fourteen postings to this series, available at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 as postings 225 and loosely following.) And I begin this series installment by acknowledging that when I started it, I expected to conclude it with a half dozen or so postings and not take on this topic as an open ended discussion. In retrospect I was naïve in that, as the issues that I write of here stem from a course-changing historical watershed event, or rather a course defining and changing series of events and decisions that will have impact for years and even decades to come, and globally.

I began this series with a goal of discussing a single progression of unfolding news events, focusing on them collectively as a working example of how not to manage national information security. So I focused in several of my earlier installments on what could be considered more the details of the story.

As a working example of that,

• I focused in Part 5 of this series on a specific set of self-inflicted problems that current national security mandated cyber-surveillance systems have created,
• From the way their data gathering programs such as PRISM and XKeyscore indiscriminately gather in every possible piece of information obtainable on essentially everyone, all the time and without any discrimination or specific reason in mind behind the collection of virtually any of it. What overarching reason, or if you will rationalization behind all of that is fear-driven and not in any way case-by-case evidence-driven.

I have also, and as a second wide-reaching but still technically focused example, discussed how access control systems put in place for managing this vast trove of data and processed information have systematically failed (see Part 5 of this series, and these series postings in general as that has been a recurring topic of discussion throughout them.)

• I turn here to consider the bigger-picture strategic and policy implications of these surveillance programs and the underlying surveillance culture behind them that recent classified information leaks have brought to general public attention,
• And to consider how fundamental and systematic strategic planning gaps and failures have led to our current predicament.

These two points form my topic of discussion for this posting and at least one more to follow. But focusing here on this posting, I begin with the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and on the first responses to them coming out of the George W. Bush presidency. In anticipation of discussion to follow, I will argue a case that our current national security policy and practice, here in late 2013 is a direct result of, and even a direct continuation of judgments and follow-throughs that were born in those early, immediately post-attack days.

Airplane hijackers commandeered four commercial passenger jets and used them as guided missiles at the immediate cost of thousands of lives lost. And as data and information that was already in hand in a series of separate agencies was searched out and identified, it relatively quickly became known that what in principle would have been enough information to prevent this attack was already in place before it took place – but it was scattered and disconnected and therefore useless for any preemptive action. I will come back to this as a lesson searingly learned in the coming months, as responses to the 9/11 attacks were planned out and implemented.

George W. Bush is not a stupid man by any means, but he has at least seemingly always been disinterested in and uncomfortable with the details. That has created problems for all of his efforts and in both the private and public sectors and particularly where he has been thrust into positions of executive and leadership responsibility: he has a tendency to take such a broad brush stroke view of the world around him that the decisions he makes and the ideological approach that he has come to embrace have generally been more than just slightly disconnected from empirical reality. He has always turned to others to manage, and even just to see the details for him and when he was in the Oval Office that meant turning an amazingly wide range of decision making and day-to-day authority over to his vice president, Dick Cheney and to a group of high-ranking and particularly influential cabinet officers. This definitely included people like his long-time friend and colleague, Donald Rumsfeld who he brought back into government service to be his Secretary of Defense from 2001 through 2006. This most certainly did not include people like Colin Powell who he brought in as his first Secretary of State: not because Powell was anything like a member of his inner, trusted circle but more as a political expediency and a negotiated concession within the senior ranks of his political party.

The people who Bush turned more detailed and detail-requiring day-to-day decisions over to, and even detail-intensive overall policy decisions too, all had their own agendas. And this meant gaps and inconsistencies in what they collectively did and both in execution and in underlying planning and logic too.

• From a larger perspective, a lack of coordinated planning and understanding played a key role in our getting into a war in Iraq, as a response to the 9/11 attacks – even though the Iraqi government had nothing to do with those attacks and this meant cutting back on our response to the Taliban led Afghan government and to al Qaida that did cause them, and for essentially the full span of Bush’s two terms in office.
• And this lack of detailed, reasoned oversight and policy, and policy execution, coupled with a toxic reliance on big ticket financial sector political donors and supporters led to continued weakening of any regulatory oversight of the financial industry. And this significantly led to and even directly helped to cause our still recent Great Recession. (I have been discussing that set of issues in some detail in this blog, and particularly in postings and series included in my Macroeconomics and Business. See, for example, my 14 part series: Considering a Cost-Benefits Analysis of Economic Regulatory Rules, beginning in that directory as posting 64.)
• I cite these two areas of strategic and operation failure here, and as failures in both vision and execution, simply to note that the failures that led to our current national security crisis stem from more general underlying causes that affected and shaped our general national defense and our overall national economy in the United States too – as well having broad and far-reaching global impact. And with that said, with a goal of putting discussion to come into a fuller context, I turn back to consider national security mandated and run intelligence gathering as a post-9/11 growth industry within the US federal government.

I have already started to outline this story in this series (e.g. see its Part 4, where I outlined how a wide range of separately mandated and run, functionally disconnected national intelligence gathering agencies and organizations were brought together under one roof and into one overall organization: the United States Department of Homeland Security, and how this in principle could be readily argued to be a good thing and even an essential move. I have also written and as a recurring thread through this series, how this was done – this policy decision was executed and results-monitored so ineffectively so as to abrogate essential any possible realizable value that this consolidation could have explicitly created – and in ways that made the Manning and Snowden leaks or at least ones like them essentially inevitable. I am going to continue this narrative with a discussion of how basic policy and execution decisions made under the George W. Bush presidency were simply continued and even expanded upon for scope of program scale under Barack Obama and his presidency. And I will do so in my next series installment in a few days.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 and in my first Ubiquitous Computing and Communications directory page. I am also listing this under my In the News posting category. And I note that I have written this posting to go live the day after Pearl Harbor Day: the US nationally observed remembrance day for an earlier attack.

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