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Editor’s column: Watch my email; let me leave my shoes on

Randy Essex
Staff Photo |

I had Thanksgiving dinner with friends in Detroit, in an apartment tower overlooking the Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario. The view included the Ambassador Bridge, which carries 25 percent of the trade volume between the United States and Canada, two of the world’s largest trade partners.

News people must think about awful things to be prepared to cover them when they happen — and they can happen anywhere, as people in Roseburg, Oregon, tragically learned when a gunman attacked their community college this fall.

So when I worked at the Detroit Free Press, particularly after the failed underwear bomber tried to blow up a plane headed to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009, I spent some time war-gaming how I would deploy my staff if terrorists attacked the bridge.



It’s a visible, aging and important structure, and perhaps could be an attractive target. Not being an engineer, I don’t know what it would take to collapse a part of the structure, and the border around Detroit is well-watched by U.S. and Canadian agencies, which have cameras and agents’ eyes on the river at all times.

Those security measures, though, aren’t how the United States would most effectively head off such a plot. To be more sure to prevent damage and loss of life, the scheme would need to be identified and thwarted long before boats were in the water or a small plane was in the air.



It would involve domestic surveillance and employing big data to identify suspicious conversations and movements.

I want the government to keep us safe. Monitoring email, phone calls and social media, building databases and identifying patterns is part of that, as troubling as it is. It’s a lot more effective than having us take off our shoes at the airport — something a Canadian diplomat friend of mine calls “security theater.”

After the Paris attacks, I again felt a bit amazed that our country has not suffered a major political terror attack within its borders since 9/11.

It’s been 14 years, and organized terrorism around the world continues to rise — up 35 percent in 2014 from the year before. We know that ISIS, al-Qaeda and untold numbers of other radicals would love to inflict another major blow within the United States, but it hasn’t happened. The worst incident fitting the description was Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood, Texas, and he was in the Army for years, not an outside attacker.

That was a bureaucratic failure to act on intelligence. A Senate report in 2011 found that an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force had learned that Hasan was communicating by e-mail with radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and flagged his communications for “further review.” Unfortunately, the information wasn’t acted upon.

It’s important that we had the information and that we gather it going forward.

The Internet is among ISIS’ weapons, used for recruiting and radicalization of sympathizers in other countries. It’s certainly more effective to recruit and direct a dozen people already in the United States than to, say, infiltrate a Syrian refugee camp, submit to personal interviews and wait two years to enter the country.

A failure by the United States to monitor communications and analyze the massive data that results would be akin to disarming ourselves in the era of digital communications and big data. Of course it’s not just ISIS that is a cyber enemy. It’s China, it’s Russia, it’s hacktivist groups such as Anonymous.

As citizens, we can’t have it both ways — an absolute expectation of privacy and an absolute expectation that our government will stop terror attacks, including cyber attacks.

Our privacy today seems pretty much theoretical anyway. We check off on terms of use for all kinds of online services without having a real concept of what we are permitting. Facebook changes terms of service in fine print and sometimes makes things more widely available than we thought we were permitting. We are on camera much of the time we are in public, even in small towns.

We are being “watched” all the time, at least as part of a stream of digital data. Also on our Thanksgiving trip, my wife’s credit card number was somehow lifted. The card company called her on Black Friday to ask if she really was making charges in Sao Paulo, Brazil. That was a fast use of data that protected us.

We are naive to believe that we don’t leave an electronic trail pretty easy for anyone to find — thieves, terrorists, neighbors, businesses of all sorts, the government and others — and naive if we think the government isn’t using it. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and other government agencies much more contemporary have kept files on many Americans, from elected officials and celebrities to local leaders. We just can’t be shocked by this, or by the idea that the government now uses sophisticated means in these ever-more dangerous times to gather almost unfathomable volumes of data.

Does the idea of domestic spying raise serious questions about what will be done with the data and what sort of oversight we should require? Absolutely.

Will it prevent all terror attacks, particularly those by lone-wolf crackpots such as most school shooters or off-the-grid types such as the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood suspect? No.

Is it a critically important weapon in our nation’s war against a rising and increasingly determined and brutal tide of organized political terrorism? I believe so.

Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.


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