“Security is a most seductive thing” and the Single Bus Line that Shut Down Boston

The WSJ has a fascinating story this morning about 3 pages cut from an early draft of the kids book, A Wrinkle in Time. It includes a discussion between the heroine and her father, in which the latter describes the dangers of valuing security over all else. He starts by talking about totalitarian governments, but when Meg asks about their own country, he responds,

“It’s an equally logical outcome of too much prosperity. Or you could put it that it’s the result of too strong a desire for security.”


I’ve come to the conclusion,” Mr. Murry said slowly, “that it’s the greatest evil there is. Suppose your great great grandmother, and all those like her, had worried about security? They’d never have gone across the land in flimsy covered wagons. Our country has been greatest when it has been most insecure. This sick longing for security is a dangerous thing, Meg,”

As it happens, immediately after I learned one of the signature American kids book originally compared US paranoia (during the height of the Cold War) with totalitarianism, I read this summary of an interview Juliette Kayyem did with former Boston Police Chief Ed Davis. In addition to confirming that the authorities immediately assumed this was an Al Qaeda attack (which fed some false assumptions about the attack) and providing background to the decision to release pictures of the brothers, Davis explained that then Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation successfully pushed to shut down the entire city because a single bus line crossed close to where Dzhokhar was believed to be hiding.

Davis gets into detail on another major debate: whether to issue a “shelter in place” order while law enforcement tracked down Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Davis points to Richard Davey, then the state’s secretary of transportation (and now the CEO of the Boston 2024 Partnership) as having particular influence. Authorities were focused on an MBTA bus that passed through the area where they believed Dzhokhar was hiding. They didn’t want Tsarnaev to have access to the entire transit system, but Davey argued that it’s difficult to shut down just that bus route—just one piece of the system. It strands those who expect it to be up and running. Because of that perspective, the debate became more “all or nothing.” Shut nothing down or shut the city down. In the end, Governor Deval Patrick made the call, in part because the city had shut down for a snow storm the week before and, as Davis puts it, “This is at least as dangerous as a snow storm.”

This is craziness! They shut down an entire city rather than shutting down a single bus line (or, better, putting a cop on every bus on that line rather than having hundreds of cops shooting like drunken cowboys a few blocks away in Watertown). And the guy who made the decision is now heading Boston’s Olympics bid.

Madeleine L’Engle was onto something.

Davis also suggests that the FBI admitted knowing the brothers before they now claim to have confirmed that ID.

Are Guardian’s Sources Responding to a New Use of Surveillance, Post-Boston?

boundless heatmap

Update: The Guardian source, Edward Snowden, has revealed himself. Stunning.

Little mentioned as we talk about the massive amounts of spying Obama’s Administration undertakes is this passage from the President’s recent speech on counterterrorism.

That’s why, in the years to come, we will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are. That means reviewing the authorities of law enforcement, so we can intercept new types of communication, and build in privacy protections to prevent abuse. [my emphasis]

As massive as the surveillance collection currently is, Obama recently called to expand it.

Most people have assumed that’s a reference to FBI’s persistent call for CALEA II, newly proposed to be a law imposing fines on companies that don’t comply with “wiretap” orders.

The F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, has argued that the bureau’s ability to carry out court-approved eavesdropping on suspects is “going dark” as communications technology evolves, and since 2010 has pushed for a legal mandate requiring companies like Facebook and Google to build into their instant-messaging and other such systems a capacity to comply with wiretap orders. That proposal, however, bogged down amid concerns by other agencies, like the Commerce Department, about quashing Silicon Valley innovation.

While the F.B.I.’s original proposal would have required Internet communications services to each build in a wiretapping capacity, the revised one, which must now be reviewed by the White House, focuses on fining companies that do not comply with wiretap orders. The difference, officials say, means that start-ups with a small number of users would have fewer worries about wiretapping issues unless the companies became popular enough to come to the Justice Department’s attention.

That is certainly at least part of what Obama’s seeking (though the ill-considered plan presents as many security issues as it does privacy ones).

But I note that Mike Rogers said this on ABC this morning.

And so each one of these programs — and I think the Zazi case is so important, because that’s one you can specifically show that this was the key piece that allowed us to stop a bombing in the New York Subway system.

But these programs, that authorized by the court by the way, only focused on non-United States persons overseas, that gets lost in this debate, are pieces of the puzzle. And you have to have all of the pieces of the puzzle to try to put it together. That’s what we found went wrong in 9/11.

And we didn’t have all of the pieces of the puzzle, we found out subsequently, to the Boston bombings, either. And so had we had more pieces of the puzzle you can stop these things before they happen. [my emphasis]

Mike Rogers asserted, with no evidence given, that had we had more information on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, we might have been able to prevent the Boston attack.

Rogers has, in the past, suggested that if we had gotten the texts between Tsarnaev’s mother and a relative in Russia discussing Tamerlan’s interest in fighting jihad. But it’s not clear that anything prevented us from collecting the relative’s communications, and if the discussion of fighting is as obvious as reporting claims (I suspect it is not), there would have been adequate probable cause to ID the mother.

In fact, one of the Guardian’s other scoops makes it clear that we don’t collect all that much SIGINT from Russia in the first place, so the fact we missed the text may say more about our intelligence focus than the technologies available to us.

Nevertheless, Rogers at least suggests that we might have been able to prevent the attack had we had more data.

In part of an interview with Andrea Mitchell that has not yet (AFAIK) been shown, James Clapper whined that the intelligence community was accused of not being intrusive enough following the Boston attack.

DNI Clapper @TodayShow: I find it a little ironic that after the Boston bombings we were accused of not being intrusive enough

Which makes me wonder whether Obama is calling for more than just CALEA II, but has floated using all this data in new ways because two guys were able to conduct a very low-tech attack together.

Glenn Greenwald said somewhere (I haven’t been able to find it) that he had been working on the PRISM story for around 2 months. If so, that would put it close to the Boston attack (though if it were two full months, it’d make it before the attack).

Given that timing, I’m wondering if the final straw that motivated this presumably high level NSA person to start leaking was a proposed new use of all this data hoovered up. Clapper et al insist that the FISA Court does not currently allow the NSA to data mine the data collected in its dragnet.

But have then been thinking about changing that?