So sayeth Keith Olbermann via Glenn Greenwald.
While of course it’s impossible to know how Obama personally feels, I am tempted to think that the Fineman commentary is most accurate: it’s protection of internal bureaucracy rather than personal policy preference. Long before he was a serious candidate, I thought that Obama had a great personal grip on policy and direction, but that he was too deferential to the establishment. Whether it’s on the economy or intelligence issues, the establishment is leading us astray but responsibility falls on Obama regardless of whether it’s the way that he would do it “ideally.”
What’s interesting is that both areas are dominated by a small group of people with inordinate amounts of influence and secrecy. They have long convinced the public writ large of this necessity, however, the last decade in particular has cast that view into doubt to the point that academic analysts are increasingly calling for the dismantling of the apparatuses entirely. And still they are protected by the political establishment on both sides without fail.
The reasons for the failure are actually very similar as well — what’s mathematically referred to as over-optimization. The general gist is that both systems are constructed to assume that there are extreme outliers that we need to worry about, that predictability is strongly correlated with amount of information, and that if enough data is processed and sifted (and kept private so people don’t change their behavior) then we can have great insight into the future and consequently take greater risks. That’s not how things really work though, and it quickly becomes mathematically impossible to “separate signal from noise” or in otherwords, figure out the information relevant to finding outliers.
The irony is that information makes the situation worse, because it breeds a false sense of security and starts driving decision making that would be seen as absurd without the models. I wish I could find the post again, but there was an intelligence analyst that showed even if there were 100x more possible terrorists in the US than suspected, and we had perfect information about every individual’s relationships and activities, the police would still have 15-20x more false positives than real ones. His argument was that this would not only be a huge civil liberties problem but lead to us being less safe because we’d be spending too many resources on running around like chickens with our heads off. His conclusion? Good ole detective work is far better. [It should be noted that the clearest signs of 9/11 came from FBI agents working on the ground through normal channels instead of all the top secret NSA/CIA work.]
As it was mentioned in the second MSNBC clip on Greenwald’s link, the only way that this will stop is if Congress asserts authority. Of course there will be gripes about separation of powers; I think instead of expecting Congress to stand up nothing will change until there is a mass change in public opinion and thus political pressure on Obama. But most people are too scared or ill informed to care, and the media falsely frames it as security vs. liberty, when the bulk of experts say it’s closer to security through liberty. Even worse, if there were attack(s) under our present regime we could pretend that we just need to do a better job and that we have control over it, even though we don’t have much. It’s a lot harder to get people to accept that we should roll back authority and accept our limitations.