National Security Panel Highlights Necessities (and Dangers) of “Big Data”

(published April 23, 2015)

The Navigating National Security panel on April 16 featured an exemplary group of (mostly) Oberlin alumni, who spoke to an audience at the Apollo Theater about balancing national security and the privacy of individuals. The panelists have worked in a vast range of positions within the intelligence community. The group included a professor in International Relations (IR) theory who is often cited regarding his work on non-proliferation and nuclear war (Robert Jervis ’62), the Vice President of Oracle (Joseph Alhadeff ’81), the former head of the MacArthur Foundation (Robert L. Galucci, the one non-Oberlin graduate), the Director of Human Language Technology for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (Judith Klavans ’68), and policy experts in proliferation of ballistic missiles. The panelists’ opinions and thoughts on international security often (but not always) converged on the confusing and sometimes frightening sphere of national security intelligence.

Panelist Jennifer Sims ’75 introduced the audience to the big data collected in national security with an example from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Arc: Indiana Jones runs into a whirling dervish who threatens him with a sword–in response, Indiana takes a gun out of his pocket and shoots him. If someone had told him that there was a whirling dervish with a sword of some particular dimensions, standing x feet away, while “objectivity and truth” about the information might have been helpful, it would have ultimately been irrelevant, because we didn’t know that Indiana Jones was carrying a gun in his pocket. In national security, the more information that can be collected, the better–but what matters most is what can be drawn from it. In other words, there needs to be a clear “connection to the final result” in order for that information to matter.

Klavens, Jervis, and Alhadeff made an analogy to a vacuum cleaner to describe “big data”: when you vacuum, you collect a lot of dust, but there are ways to find the “marbles.” The “marbles” here are the small snippets of important information, collected from the “dust,” or extensive data collection. Such bulk data collection helped isolate the Tsarnev brothers in connection the Boston Marathon, and it ensured that they were working by themselves and not as a part of a greater terrorist organization. While there is clearly a lot of information being collected, Klavens said, it also gives us the “benefit of knowing something’s not going to happen.”

This connected back to perhaps the biggest recent question in national security–Edward Snowden and whistleblowing. To say the least, the panelists were not fans of Edward Snowden, who many Oberlin students and some professors view as a brave man who had acted for the public good. Snowden knowingly released thousands of documents on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars without having read them; most panelists believed that while he did highlight important potential breaches of civil liberties like the right to privacy, he undermined the institutions already in place to report such activities. The release of such massive amounts of classified information can be grave–like in the case of Chelsea Manning, who uploaded a classified video showing U.S. military killing Iraqi citizens to Wikileaks. Both Snowden and Manning released the names of operatives working with the U.S., and in turn, put those operatives’ lives and their missions at great risk. The panelists repeated at both the student journalist press conference earlier that afternoon and at the panel that Snowden and Manning could have released far less, and more specific, data to make their points and mitigate teh risks of releasing top-secret data.

Sims firmly argued Snowden could have gone to the Inspector General first, then to the Hill, then Congress, and finally the press. The majority of panelists cited the case of Daniel Ellsberg, a former analyst at the RAND Corporation, as an example of what could have been done. In 1971, Ellsberg xeroxed volumes of early reports from within the intelligence community, otherwise known as the Pentagon Papers, that expressed that the Vietnam War could not be won. He first appealed to the Senate, asking them to release the papers, but this was met with little response from the Senators. The  papers were eventually released, and Ellsberg was tried for their release, but he was acquitted of all charges due to the government’s questionable misconduct.

The majority of panelists agreed that they too would see Snowden as a hero if, like Ellsberg, he had stayed and gone through a trial, which would clarify the released data and force the government to defend its position. The panelists added that the government was almost certainly withholding information about Snowden and “the data dump” from the public in hopes of one day using it to prosecute Snowden. Sims added tartly that she would not be surprised if Snowden was not a lone wolf, but working for a foreign agent.

Only Jervis defended Snowden’s actions, saying that he didn’t go to the institutions Sims and the other panelists mentioned because, in his words, “What would they done?” According to Jervis, the institutions were so bureaucratic that there would be no immediate solution. What all the panelists did seem to agree on was that Snowden should have stayed in the U.S., instead of reporting this data from Hong Kong, and then from Russia. As Panelist Galucci (the one non-Oberlin alum) said, “This is outrageous to me. […] Don’t call yourself a patriot and leak these from China and Russia.” This comment received some applause in the audience.

Another topic raised was the Patriot Act. In the press conference, Sims said it was a shame that the question of the Act’s renewal was coming up in teh next few months during “silly season,” where politicians are looking to gather their own coalitions in anticipation of the 2016 election. Most agreed that the Act should be renewed temporarily, but there was a general consensus that the Act’s measures should not be permanent. A permanent adoption of these measures would be dangerous; after all, the Patriot Act was passed in the wake of 9/11, without much room for discussion of the long-term impact of these measures. To paraphrase Alhadeff, now is the time to start having that conversation, and flesh out the details. More about the Patriot Act was discussed in a recent segment of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, where Oliver interviewed Snowden.

At the press conference earlier that day, we asked the panelists: what is the biggest threat to national security– cyber or nuclear proliferation? All but one agreed that it was cyber. Jervis, a famed life-long scholar of nuclear war, still worried more about an arms race, but argued that both threats were far more mild than the national security concerns of the 20th century. The problem is, the more the U.S. tries to defend itself from cyber attacks, the more it looks like it’s going on the offensive, and vice versa. Cyber is a growing threat, not only because of continued threats and attempts of cyber espionage from Russia and China towards the U.S., but because the more personal information there is out there, the more hackers are able to find such personal information and use it for sabotage.

The takeaway on national security was what one might expect: that national security is far more complex and risky than what we can imagine from outside the field looking in. Even regarding their common concerns about violations of civil liberties, this group of Obies reminded us of their liberal credentials (such as protesting against the Vietnam War), and suggested that perhaps the best way to change the system is by working within it.

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