How Not to Spot a Terrorist

Paranoid America – by which I mean its governors – has long dreamed of foolproof technology to guard the Homeland from subversion, or penetration by alien hostiles.

In its latest variant, the vaunted technology comes in the form of the sweeps by the computers of the National Security Agency, programmed to intercept hundreds of millions of phone, email and fax messages. These days, as much as a third of global communications are on fiber-optic cable routes that pass through the United States.

The NSA’s programmers claim that the artificial intelligence programs – terabytes of speech, text, and image data – monitoring the filters are of such refinement that they can determine the sex, age and class of the communicators and, no doubt (though they take care not to boast of any such profiling), their genetic and linguistic ethnicity too. After all, Middle Easterners are surely a prime target.

A very useful story in the Washington Post for February 5, headlined “Surveillance Net Yields Few Subjects”, cites “knowledgeable sources” as saying about 5,000 Americans have had their conversations recorded or emails read without court authority. Of these, less than 10 U.S. citizens or residents a year “have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well.”

Such intercepts would require a warrant from a judge, with the request couched in terms of probable cause, usually defined as being a one-in-two chance of the suspicions being justified. So clearly a final cull of ten or so a year out of hundreds of thousands or, more likely, tens of millions means the “probable cause” standard was tossed aside.

So, “data mining” by artificially programmed computers is a proceeding that is not only constitutionally illegal but a technological fantasy. The Post quotes Jeff Jonas, now chief scientist at IBM Entity Analytics, as saying pattern-matching techniques that “look at people’s behavior to predict terrorist intent are so far from reaching the level of accuracy that’s necessary that I see them as nothing but civil liberty infringement engines.”

Every era produces its techno-Panglosses, eager to guard America, and demanding torrents of public money to that end. In Reagan-time it was the Strategic Defense Initiative, with missiles programmed to launch on warning that enemy warheads were plummeting into the Homeland. Long since discredited by one series of failed tests after another, this souvenir of Reagan-time still marches expensively through the Defense Budget.

That spasm of military Keynesianism has thus far merely cost money. Back in the early part of the twentieth century the data-miners and SDI fantasists had their equivalents in men of intellectual eminence who successfully agitated for filters to be installed at America’s ports of entry to detect genetic terrorists, i.e., people of bloodstock deemed by the fearful eugenicists to be a threat to America’s gene pool.

The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 sanctioned the use of the bogus U.S. Army IQ scores of World War I promoted by eugenic racists) to “scientifically verify” the supposed hereditary mental inferiority of Jews, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Spaniards, and other non Anglo-Saxon Protestant racial and ethnic groups.

The screening was designed to address the fears expressed in Charles Davenport’s influential bestseller of 1911, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, where he prophesied that if unchecked by genetic national security agents, “the population of the United States will, on account of the great influx of blood from South-Eastern Europe, rapidly become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, more attached to music and art, more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, and vagrancy than were the original English settlers.”

Davenport even wanted to send eugenics inspects to Europe to examine all would-be immigrants for genetic flaws. In the end, this task passed to his German admirers.

In his great 1975 tract, The Legacy of Malthus, Allan Chase, narrating this shameful story, asks the question, how many of the 6,065,704 would-be immigrants excluded by racial quotas set by the eugenicists survived the war? For sure, most of the Jews, Poles and Russians identified by the Nazis (using U.S. eugenic “science”) were rounded up and exterminated.

To the phrenologists, genetic data miners, we can add the forensic fingerprinters. I’ve long believed that the “scientific certainty” of unique fingerprint matching is mostly theater, using suspect forensic work to bewitch judge and jury, as it has for over a hundred years. Fingerprinting be it recalled, was first sold as a crime-fighting tool by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Ernest Galton, a fervent eugenicist.

In 2004 the FBI’s top fingerprint analysts, subsequently buttressed by an outside “forensic expert”, insisted that a print lifted from a bag at the scene of the Madrid terror bombing in that year was “a 100 per cent match” with one of 20 sets of prints spat out by the FBI’s integrated, automated, fingerprint identification system (IAFIS) containing a database of some 20 million fingerprints. (To be fair to the IAFIS computer system, it said, “close, no match)

The print thrown up by the FBI’s computer belonged to the left index finger of Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer working in Beaverton, Oregon. A judge in Portland duly acknowledged probable cause in signing a warrant for surveillance of Mayfield. He was spied upon and arrested. All the while, the Spanish police were insisting that there was no match between Mayfield’s print and the one in the van, which they determined belonged to the right middle finger of Ouhnane Daoud, an Algerian national living in Spain, whom they duly arrested. Mayfield, who was nowhere near Spain when the bombs went off, went free.

The claims of scientific precision are as suspect today as they were a century ago when Davenport was laboring on his racist tract and the sterilizers mustering strength here in America.

These days we have data mining, “100 per cent certain” DNA hits, retinal ID, face recognition systems. Elementary constitutional protections get swept aside. As they reviewed the NSA data mining, a prime concern of the Democrats was the potential liability of U.S. phone carriers (who poured money into their campaign treasuries in 1996 to purchase telecommunications “reform”). They didn’t question the very premises of the data mining. Is this strange? Not in a world where the New York Times can publish an article, as it did on February 8, on the Democrats’ failure to gain popular traction, in which the difficult words “war” and “Iraq” never intruded.

Shameful Danish Record

Danes are being treated as inoffensive folk unwittingly caught up in row over cartoons. History tells a different tale.

In the ancient town of Canterbury, England, the medieval glass windows of the Cathedral relate shocking behavior of Danes in the early 11th century. The Danes are shown besieging Canterbury in 1011 despite having been paid Danegeld, the ransom extorted by the marauding Danes, payment of which was meant to spare towns unfortunate to find themselves targeted by these predators.

Canterbury fell and massacre ensued. Alphege, the Archbishop of Canterbury, sought to dissuade Danes from killing everybody. He was taken hostage and ransom was demanded. Alphege refused to allow the poor of Canterbury to pay it. He was taken to Greenwich and then murdered by drunken Danes who hurled bones at him at a feast and then killed him with an axe.

Alphege was buried first in St Paul’s but but his body was moved back to Canterbury under King Canute, presumably seeking closure. Alphege was later sanctified and was Canterbury’s big selling point to attract pilgrims until Thomas a Becket. Danes didn’t behave too well in Ireland either. When I was growing in East Cork, we didn’t have to travel far to see the sad relicts of their predations. Many was the picnic we enjoyed amid the ruins of Molanna Abbey, on the west bank of the Blackwater, where the waters would sluice out through the fish-traps designed by the monks who kept the lamps of learning alight in those dark times, till the arrival of the brutish Danes.

So there are those who simply think – high matters of “blasphemy” aside – that when it comes to rough treatment of embassies and the rights of diplomatic sanctuary, not to mention physical maltreatment ofGod’s terrestial representatives, the Danes had it coming to them.

Though the colonial era does not show many pages devoted to Danish excesses, there hints that of what might have been. Denmark’s only overseas possessions, for a limited period, was the island of St Croix, birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. When the Danish flag was briefly hoisted over the island, the Danes lost no time in imposing the Gavilon Code, setting forth the work and taxes too be extorted from the locals by the Danish oppressor. Historians mark it as one of the cruelest in the entire annals of empire.

Footnote: an earlier version of the first item ran in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last Wednesday.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.