The Washington Post’s Monitoring America series provides no great surprises for anyone who worries about the right to privacy in the age of terrorism.  These concerns have been in tension against the need to protect the nation from terrorists at home and abroad, and both Left and Right have objected to certain measures and practices in the growth of the federal government’s ability to collect and store data on presumably law-abiding citizens.  That doesn’t mean that the Post’s efforts are pointless or redundant, however, as they remind us of the extent of the trade-off and its relatively unremarked growth over the last several years:

Nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators. …

Other democracies – Britain and Israel, to name two – are well acquainted with such domestic security measures. But for the United States, the sum of these new activities represents a new level of governmental scrutiny. …

The months-long investigation, based on nearly 100 interviews and 1,000 documents, found that:

* Technologies and techniques honed for use on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have migrated into the hands of law enforcement agencies in America.

* The FBI is building a database with the names and certain personal information, such as employment history, of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents whom a local police officer or a fellow citizen believed to be acting suspiciously. It is accessible to an increasing number of local law enforcement and military criminal investigators, increasing concerns that it could somehow end up in the public domain.

* Seeking to learn more about Islam and terrorism, some law enforcement agencies have hired as trainers self-described experts whose extremist views on Islam and terrorism are considered inaccurate and counterproductive by the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies.

* The Department of Homeland Security sends its state and local partners intelligence reports with little meaningful guidance, and state reports have sometimes inappropriately reported on lawful meetings.

Again, none of this is particularly surprising.  Battlefield technologies almost always “migrate” to use at home, depending on its application and the cost.  The city of LA had halftracks used in combating drug trafficking more than two decades ago, for one example, parodied in the movie Die Hard.  The FBI collects data from many people and always has, which is one of the reasons why releasing the raw FBI files on political figures to the Clinton White House was such an egregious act.  What they do with the data is, of course, the greater consideration.  Picking the wrong imams isn’t just limited to “some law enforcement agencies,” as the Pentagon’s relationship with Anwar al-Awlaki demonstrated.  The problem of government agencies acting with less than optimal efficiency at working across boundaries is hardly new, either.

It’s still valuable to have journalists dig into these problems on a regular basis so that we can demand better performance from security groups and Congress, rather than just shrug at inefficiency, waste, and abuses of power.  But Liz Goodwin’s “5 most surprising revelations” from the WaPo entry today at Yahoo read as though Goodwin has never before reviewed governmental performance:

  1. The FBI has 161,948 suspicious activity files on “tens of thousands” of Americans – The FBI set up hotlines and websites for tips on terrorism immediately after 9/11.  Each tip presumably opens up a file.  In nine years, the effort has produced less than 20,000 tips per year and (assuming the maximum range of tens of thousands) about 10,000 suspects a year.  That doesn’t seem very surprising to me.  That they haven’t arrested anywhere near that many people is a function of what an investigation produces.  Maintaining files on dead probes doesn’t mean anything, unless they get leaked.
  2. DHS has no idea how much it’s spending on liaison efforts to local agencies – I’d guess that many agencies don’t really know how much they spend on any one aspect of their operations.  DHS is a huge federal agency, employing 216,000 people with an overall budget of about $52 billion with varied and overlapping jurisdictions.
  3. Local officials in these “fusion centers” get little or no training – Surprise!  Government bureaucracies are notoriously inefficient.  That’s why it’s a good idea to limit them to tasks that only government can and should do — although it’s worth pointing out that this happens to be one of those tasks.
  4. Local agencies are “left without guidance” from DHS – This is really the same thing as #3, isn’t it, or at least the same root problem?   She points out that among those groups suspected of potential terrorist activity by state and local authorities were Tea Party activists, historically black colleges, and a group that campaigned for human rights and bike lanes.  Again, that might have been based on tips received and followed up by the agencies, but also again, it’s part of a lack of competence and accountability endemic in bureaucracies.
  5. State and local agencies are taking counterterrorist funding and using it to support regular law-enforcement efforts instead – Who couldn’t have seen that coming?  These funds are usually given in bloc grants, which means the recipient can use the money for whatever purpose they desire.  All they need is a tenuous link to the original purpose of the funds to make it pass muster, and it’s certainly arguable that by enforcing the state and local law more vigorously, local law enforcement might be able to flush out terrorists.  However, this is a problem because it makes local law enforcement dependent on federal funding, which is a bad idea in principle.  Communities should pay for their own law enforcement needs and let the feds concentrate on actual federal crimes.

These aren’t surprises at all.  They are, however, issues that need to be corrected — and it appears that the first item on correction should be a rethink of DHS and its top-heavy bureaucracy.