Ex-Agent Decries Dead End of Data Mining

What drove Mike German from the FBI to the ACLU wasn’t just a sense of outrage; it was a sense of futility.

German was an FBI agent for 16 years. He worked part of that time thwarting domestic terrorists. He infiltrated Neo-Nazi groups as an undercover operative and built successful criminal cases against some of their members.

But higher-ups never once asked him what worked and what didn’t.

Meanwhile, German watched the agency that he had dreamed of being a part of since childhood choke on its own hidebound, ineffective methods.

Warrantless wiretaps.

Data mining.

Privacy rights violated with impunity.

And to what end?

Certainly not toward the greater security of the United States, German said in an interview Tuesday night.

Passing through Denver on his way to speak to military personnel at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, German talked about a wealth of information that costs a fortune but doesn’t stop terrorism.“Information on the bad guys is already in police files,” said German, now a legislative policy analyst for the ACLU. “We should look there at the beginning.”

He pointed to how much U.S. intelligence agencies knew about the 9/11 terrorists before they blew up the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon. The failures in the war on terrorism didn’t result from a lack of information, German insisted. They came from a lack of action and coordination.

Mindlessly mining data creates what German calls “false positives” that leave already overworked agents unable to do any detailed digging. He wrote a book – “Thinking Like a Terrorist” – in hopes of making that point.

Even among fringe groups, German said, it is hard to turn people into terrorists. “You have to turn against everything you know,” he said. “It’s a very hard life. It is ultra-paranoid. (Leaders) have to convince people that their class is being oppressed.”

So oppressed that the only solution is to “commit acts to start the war.”

German’s main point is that terrorists are criminals and defining them as criminals as opposed to, say, martyrs or liberators, takes away their veneer of legitimacy in the community and exposes them for the thugs they are.

You don’t need warrantless wiretaps or star chambers to do that, German argued.

Think what Thomas Jefferson would have thought of the secret courts the United States now uses to try terrorism suspects.

“Congress has given secret government organizations more power to gather information about the daily lives of ordinary Americans,” German said. “But there never has been a study to show that data mining is effective. We have 300,000 people on a national terrorist watch list. Less than 400 have been prosecuted and convicted. Some 87 percent of terrorism cases brought by the FBI are declined for prosecution.”

At the same time, terrorist attacks are up.

Worse, German insisted, “we’re taking ineffective models and bringing them here for hundreds of millions of dollars.”

He used surveillance cameras in London to make his point. Those cameras helped identify subway bombers in the city’s worst terrorist attack. But only after the fact. This, German claimed, “doesn’t make you more secure.”

Basic street-level police work does.

That and the ability to share the fruits of investigations among many agencies is our best defense against terrorism, Mike German will tell you from experience.

Transparency, not secrecy, will save us, he said. The rule of law will separate liquidators from liberators.

“We have an effective counter-terrorism strategy,” German said. “It’s called the Constitution.”

And it was written by real revolutionaries.

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Jim Spencer

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