America’s Spy System: Why didn’t it work?

If the US National Security Agency’s massive electronic spy system didn’t catch the murderous jihadist lovers, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook, what is it for?

Tashfeen entered the United States in July of 2014 on a K-1 visa for fiancées on a Pakistani passport, according to authorities, who began excavating for details of her arrival after she and her Illinois-born husband, Syed Farook, killed 14 people in a San Bernardino, California health center on Dec. 2 and wounded 21 more.

Apparently, according to friends of Farook, the two met online and had been corresponding for as long as two years before Malik entered the US. An unnamed US intelligence official confirmed that Farook had been in contact with known Islamic extremists on social media. The FBI Director James Comey later told Reuters the two had been discussing jihad and martyrdom online a year before they met in person.

What were they talking about on the phone?

That raises some questions. Since Malik was apparently living in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan when the two met, they must have had extensive telephone or Internet conversations – overseas conversations the NSA system is supposed to be able to monitor – before Malik came to the United States, at least some of those conversations dealing in the radicalism that triggered their murderous onslaught.

The government says some of those conversations may have been encrypted, enough appears to have leaked out, according to Comey and others, that it should have made someone realize in retrospect that this wasn’t just a dialogue about what kind of roses to carry at the wedding.

It appears the two were probably having these conversations at about the same time in July of 2013 that Edward J. Snowden, former CIA employee and National Security Agency contractor, downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified NSA and UK Government Communications Headquarters documents and began making them public.

Snowden’s decision to go public stemmed from a belief that NSA and CIA operatives were delving so deeply into private lives that they were violating the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which prohibits illegal search and seizure.

What is the US spending all that money on?

According to documents compiled by the Federation of American Scientists, a nonpartisan think tank that analyzes security issues, the NSA was one of 15 US intelligence agencies that spent a combined US$75 billion in 2012, the last year for which figures are available. It was estimated that some 14 percent of the budget goes to the NSA. Supposedly, the NSA and CIA say, this vast security apparatus is designed to pick up key words including plots to kill and maim Americans, delivered via telephone or Internet, by fundamentalist radicals. An investigation by the Washington Post into 160,000 e-mails and SMS conversations in August of 2014 found that half of the communications were either to or from or about Americans. The documents include health records, academic transcripts and revealing photographs, tell stories of adultery, mental illness, and religious conversion.

Snowden has been accused by CIA and NSA officials of hampering the US intelligence effort so badly that attackers can hit American targets with impunity. Now debarked in Moscow, Snowden would probably spend the rest of his life in prison if he ever was to show his face in the US again.

But Tashfeen and Syed appear to have been having homicidal tete-a-tetes before the US Congress decided to limit surveillance, based on the scandal his revelations has generated.

So why didn’t the NSA pick up their conversations? If there was ever a case that would have demonstrates the US spy agencies’ prowess, this would have been it.

Maybe the volume froze it

It is probably because the surveillance system is so huge that it doesn’t work, so overcome by the sheer volume of information, that it can’t be analyzed readily. Today, for instance, in retrospect, officials are providing plenty of detail about the two. Malik is recorded as having moved as a child with her family to Saudi Arabia 25 years ago. The family is originally from the Pakistani town of Karor Lal Esan, 120 kilometers) southwest of Islamabad. Malik didn't stay in Saudi Arabia, eventually returning to Pakistan and Islamabad although she returned to Saudi Arabia for visits.

Voluminous information has continued to pour out about the couple’s lives, information that may or may not have been possession of the authorities before they walked into the Inland Regional Center with their Smith & Wesson M&P assault rifle, their DMSP Panther assault rifle, their Smith & Wesson and Llama handguns (all, we discovered later, bought legally) and started blasting away at the holiday party.

In a study by International Security, it was found that 45 US citizens have been killed in nine jihadist attacks since 2001. The most notable were in Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, where a Muslim army psychiatrist shot 12 soldiers, and in Massachusetts, where two brothers bombed the Boston Marathon, killing three on Apr. 15, 2013. Five were killed in a shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee, earlier this year.

Usually attacks stopped the old fashioned way

In none of them was the NSA able to pick up any chaff. Supposedly, more than 60 terrorist plots have been foiled in the United States since 9/11. But far too often, they include the case of two luckless ice cream sellers in Lodi, California, in 2005 after an overzealous FBI informant talked them into describing a supposed jihadist camp in Pakistan. Usually, the attacks were foiled by old-fashioned informants, or friends and relatives concerned that their kinfolk were getting in too deep. In several of them, the prospective assailants were so incompetent that the simply gave themselves away with their actions.

In Comey, Texas earlier this year, where an ultraconservative group put on an exhibit of artwork involving the Prophet Mohamad in what appeared to be a blatant attempt to lure Islamists into violet action, the police chief complained that the assailants had used “encrypted” electronic transmissions. Nonetheless, when two males drove up to the front of the Curtis Culwell Center and began firing, the police, as could be expected from the act of putting on such a provocative event, were waiting and blew them away. Both were killed and a security guard was shot in the ankle.

So what the United States seems to have for its US$75 billion a year, is a system that can’t decipher encrypted messages by a pair of incompetent amateurs. Otherwise, as in the case of the jihadi lovebirds Tashfeen and Syed, it seems to have a system that excels at telling what is going to happen after it has already happened.

John Berthelsen is the editor in chief of Asia Sentinel