Most Americans understand that in a hostile world, governments need to engage in some snooping to monitor and thwart our enemies. We know they need to crack codes and keep secrets. In exchange for handing the government that extraordinary power, we expect it to be exercised with prudence within a rubric of restraints on abuse.
Events and revelations this spring have ushered in a season of suspicion on how the nation's vast spying bureaucracy has been deploying, abusing and applying its power. The Department of Justice appears not to have abided by its own rules in getting access to Associated Press telephone records in Washington and Hartford. Attorney General Eric Holder has offered no plausible explanation to the public for this abuse.
The department's targeting of Fox News reporter James Rosen over a story on North Korea that he was pursuing looks even worse. As the story continues to unfold, the department looks to have tried to make investigative reporting a crime.
The atmosphere of suspicion was ripe for Edward Snowden to burst into the espionage hothouse with details of what at first look seems like the government's limitless taste for collecting details of phone calls and other common transactions. Snowden leaked documents to The Guardian newspaper of London. Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke the story, promises more jarring revelations.
The spotlight on Snowden, a 29-year-old employee of a private contractor working for the National Security Agency. provided a reminder of how big the nation's spying apparatus has become. More than 800,000 people, including Snowden, have some type of top secret clearance. Many more are allowed to view other types of classified documents.
This is a large and expensive army of public and private employees dedicated to watching all of us in the pursuit of detecting, identifying and thwarting people who would set off bombs. We are learning that it routinely reaches into the details of all our lives. It looks for potential terrorists by scrutinizing patterns and obscure clues. We have to wonder how these huge organizations dedicated to thwarting attacks somehow missed Boston's Tsarnaev brothers before they struck twice in April.
In 2011, Russian officials, according to U.S. Rep. William R. Keating, D-Mass., notified the FBI of a drift into radical Islam by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a political refugee from the Chechen region of Russia. This seems to have prompted at least one visit to Tsarnaev in his Cambridge apartment.
Rival law enforcement organizations dispute who else knew about Tsarnaev, but they cannot deny that in the world of potential terrorists, he stood out among millions of, say, Verizon cellphone customers. We know he visited al-Qaida-related websites, which was probably no surprise to the Muslim worshippers at a local mosque who threw him out after he ranted about his radical vision of Islam.
Law enforcement, however, seems to have lost track of him and his murderous brother. Even after they planted two bombs near the crowded finish line of the Boston marathon on April 15, no one in law enforcement seems to have thought, "I wonder where Tamerlan Tsarnaev was on Monday."
Three days later, officials released photos of what turned out to be Tamleran Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, in a bid for the public's assistance in identifying and capturing the suspects. They were still in the Boston area. Dzhokhar had returned to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth campus where he was a failing student.
People who may have recognized the widely broadcast photos on that Thursday (such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev's wife and her Rhode Island family and Dzhokhar's fellow students) appear not to have contacted law enforcement on that critical afternoon and evening. That they had to broadcast the photos reveals that no one in the FBI had made connection between the 2011 identification of Tamerlan Tsarnaev as potential trouble.
That inexplicable error allowed the Tsarnaevs to engage in one more murderous rampage, killing MIT campus police officer Sean Collier and wounding transit police officer Richard Donohue Jr. on that Thursday night.
It's hard for laymen to understand how a system that ignores big clues will protect us by scrutinizing obscure ones. If the government's huge net of surveillance missed the Tsarnaevs, what does it catch?