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If the NSA knows so much, how come we know so little?

Does it depends on what you mean by "know"? Stephen Walt throws out some possibilities on the subject of spying and foreign policy making.

It is hard to believe we are, given that America's foreign policy record since the end of the Cold War is mostly one of failure. And that leads me to suspect that one of two things is true. Either 1) the NSA is good at collecting gazilla-bytes of stuff but not very good at deciding what to collect or figuring out what it means, or 2) the rest of our foreign policy establishment is not very good at taking advantage of the information the NSA has worked so hard to acquire. In other words, either the NSA is not worth the money we're paying for it, or the rest of our foreign policy establishment is less competent than we thought. To be frank, I'm not sure which possibility I prefer.

As far as we "know," preventing terrorist attacks (the reasons NSA has a huge budget) has not been so glowing: the Boston marathon attackers were on the radar screens of the FBI and the Russian intelligence services. The older brother was on jihadi web-sites and on the phone to Dagestan. Did the NSA have info that could have raised a red flag at the FBI?

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UK spy chiefs testify this week  that 34 terror plots were uncovered. [the other billion calls and emails were most likely very boring]

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24847399

The UK has always been better at spying than the U. S., and without relying so much on technical data.  They rely on  figuring out the psychology of their opponents, I suspect it's because they have to learn Shakespeare so they're better ata it.  There ain't nothing like learning Shakespeare for teaching you about ambition, power, motives, betrayals, cover-ups and general skullduggery. 

Plus they have James Bond.

If NSA employees are tapping into "known" dangerous folks like the Chancellor of Germany, one of two things might be in play:

1. These people are bored and have more time on their hands and the terrorist threat is something less than we are led to believe.

2. These people are wasting valuable time and effort and the Boston Marathon attackers and possibly others are slipping through the cracks.

Fifty years ago, Roberta Wohlstetter showed that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was knowable in advance but remained unknown because the intelligence was buried in other information that pointed in other directions. Fifty years later, we are vacuuming up more and more information, and no doubt some good stuff is buried in it. But it is more deeply buried than Pearl Harbor because we amass so much more hay in which to look for the needle.

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.