Opinion

Here's the national security outrage that should really fire up Marco Rubio

The NSA isn't just violating civil liberties — it's extraordinarily ineffective

For a smart guy, Sen. Marco Rubio doesn't have a clue about national intelligence.

Frequent readers will note I'm usually very high on the Republican presidential candidate. He gets the key political challenge faced by the GOP — the perception that it is no longer responsive to working and middle-class concerns. And he also understands that responding to this challenge requires not abandoning conservatism, but applying its time-honored principle in a new way for the 21st century. I think he has pushed the freshest, best domestic policy agenda this cycle, and I share his hawkish instincts on foreign policy.

But it's precisely because Rubio is smart, reform-minded, and tough on foreign policy that I'm puzzled by his decision to rise to the defense of the NSA's intelligence gathering programs.

I mean, I understand — there has just been a massive terrorist attack in Paris, Rubio is deeply invested in national security issues, and the political calculus of sounding tough is obvious enough. Which I guess is why he recently attacked fellow candidate Sen. Rand Paul for opposing the NSA's phone metadata program. You might say turnabout is fair play, since Paul launched a wrong-headed, misinformed, and unfair attack against Rubio on child tax credits. But that's the point: Rubio shouldn't respond to an unfair attack with an unfair attack.

In an interview after the Paris attacks, Rubio speculated that if Rand had his way and a Paris-style attack occurred on American soil, U.S. authorities would not be able to access the culprits' phone records and metadata to find out who their accomplices were. This is nonsense on stilts.

The only demand that Paul and other civil liberties advocates make with regard to phone records is that investigators have to show probable cause before a judge and get a warrant before they can access those records — as required by, um, the United States Bill of Rights. I'm pretty sure that if you're talking about finding the culprits of a major terrorist attack, no judge would object to getting those records, and it's frankly scurrilous to suggest that civil liberties advocates don't want bad guys to be investigated, when they only ask that the government follow due process. The problem with the metadata program is that even though it was supposedly overseen by a court, the court's authorization was so broad, and the data sets so large, that meaningful judicial oversight was in practice impossible. That's a real problem, at least if you believe the Bill of Rights ought to be followed.

So Rubio in that interview was disastrously wrong, but what of the broader issue?

Here's the biggest problem about the metadata program: It doesn't actually help national security. It's a false tradeoff. Collecting everybody's — literally everybody's — phone metadata is useful if you want to do data mining. "Data mining" is a fancy term that gets thrown around, but refers to a specific approach: trying to make sense of very large sets of data by trying to find statistical patterns within them. You try to associate terrorist cell activity with a particular data pattern, and then try to match that pattern with other patterns in the data.

The problem with this approach to counter-terrorism is that it works best under certain conditions — specifically, when the nature and type of data are not changing over time, when the data are complete and clean, and when you know what you are looking for. In reality, the conditions for finding terrorist activity (or any kind of criminal activity) are exactly the opposite.

Osama bin Laden wasn't found using data mining. He was found using a combination of old-fashioned detective work and, yes, data analysis — analysis of specific data sets, of the kind that warrants are useful for (if we were looking for a domestic enemy, as bin Laden was not).

So it wasn't just the civil liberties abuses that the Snowden documents revealed, it was the ineffectiveness of the NSA. As someone who has spent a few years in business, I could recognize those PowerPoint presentations — they were exactly the kind produced by expensive consultants that allows everyone to check boxes and tell their superiors they've done work, without actually accomplishing much. To senators and bureaucrats, "data mining" and other technical mumbo jumbo sounds very impressive, especially if it comes with a hefty price tag, but that doesn't tell you if it actually gets the job done.

The intelligence community has its own bureaucrats — otherwise it wouldn't have been asleep at the switch in the run-up to 9/11 — and any conservative worth his salt like Marco Rubio ought to see a real problem there. It is actually possible for a government bureaucracy to say very impressive-sounding things, but actually accomplish nothing useful!

Take the ballooning contracting industry. Literally millions of Americans have security clearances — what a joke! The KGB had a good rule of thumb: You should typically assume that the number of people who know any piece of secret information is the square of the number of people who you know have been told about it. With millions of Americans with security clearances, is it any wonder that the Chinese and the Russians are hacking all of our crucial government systems?

Is it any wonder that the Snowden leaks would happen, when so much of our national security scutwork is done through contractors, and sub-contractors, and sub-sub-contractors? For every Snowden who wants to get on the frontpages of newspapers, how many are there in the bowels of the national security contracting industry who have been cajoled, or threatened, or tricked, or bribed, or blackmailed into giving equally sensitive information to the Russians, or the Chinese, or worse?

And there is an important point here only a true conservative can make. The biggest reason for the senseless ballooning of the security contracting industry is perhaps the antiquated civil service rules that ensure lockstep career advancement, keep wages from being competitive with the private sector, and prohibit critical government agencies from firing employees. So much contracting is done precisely to get around rules that force government to work less efficiently than the private sector. Reforming civil service rules that apply to intelligence agencies would do a lot more for our national security than any metadata collection program, and is something that someone like Marco Rubio can take the lead on.

These are huge national security outrages that nobody talks about, and they don't have anything to do with civil liberties. They're what someone like Marco Rubio should be concerned about, and what he's obscuring by playing into some Manichean spooks-vs-ACLU dichotomy.

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