Something that always bugs me in the various debates about surveillance and torture is the tendency to implicitly assume that more information is always better. According to Karen DeYoung and Michael Leahy, the Abdulmutallab screw-up is a case study in the extent to which this isn’t the case:
When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father in Nigeria reported concern over his son’s “radicalization” to the U.S. Embassy there last month, intelligence officials in the United States deemed the information insufficient to pursue. The young man’s name was added to the half-million entries in a computer database in McLean and largely forgotten.
The lack of attention was not unusual, according to U.S. intelligence officials, who said that thousands of similar bits of information flow into the National Counterterrorism Center each week from around the world. Only those that indicate a specific threat, or add to an existing body of knowledge about an individual, are passed along for further investigation and possible posting on airline and border watch lists.
“It’s got to be something that causes the information to sort of rise out of the noise level, because there is just so much out there,” one intelligence official said.
And there’s the rub. Out of the six billion people on the planet only a numerically insignificant fraction are actually dangerous terrorists. Even if you want to restrict your view to one billion Muslims, the math is the same. Consequently, tips, leads and the like are overwhelmingly going to be pointing to innocent people. You end up with a system that’s overwhelmed and paralyzed. If there were hundreds of thousands of al-Qaeda operatives trying to board planes every year, we’d catch lots of them. But we’re essentially looking for needles in haystacks.