America

A 'Vast Domestic Intelligence Apparatus' Is Watching; Is That OK?

The most provocative story of the day could be The Washington Post piece headlined "Monitoring America," which begins with this:

"Nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators."

Information is being collected, according to the Post, "about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing." Reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin say "a web of 4,058 federal, state and local organizations, each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions" is involved.

Priest and Arkin are due online at WashingtonPost.com today at 1 p.m. ET to take questions about their report. All Things Considered is aiming to have more on the story later today.

As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has reported, U.S. security officials have become increasingly worried in recent years that "the biggest threat is no longer coming from the dusty landscape of Afghanistan or the mountains of Pakistan border regions. Instead, experts say, the threat now comes from within our own borders, in the form of homegrown terrorists."

So there's a push on to collect information about what's happening inside the nation's borders. At the same time, there's the never-ending concern that some individuals' civil liberties might be endangered.

This all leads to a question:

Update at 1:15 p.m. ET: Dana Priest just told NPR's Audie Cornish that there are now about 160,000 names in the database. Priest added that officials say about 300 cases have been helped by information that's been collected, about 100 separate investigations have been begun based on information in the database and that there have been five arrests so far.

She described one example found in the database, about a report that two people were seen at a harbor in California taking pictures of a fireboat. That information led, through a license plate on a car, to an identification of the picture-taker. "He's now in the database, as is his vehicle," Priest said. "From there, what would happen is, local law enforcement — but then also the FBI — could start collecting information" on that person. That information could include where he travels, some of it from photos taken by surveillance cameras of the car.

Audie asked if this is all part of an attempt to "connect the dots" before a terrorist plot can be carried out. Priest said the real goal, "is to see whether there is a dot — to see whether you're a dot that's worth connecting to something bigger":

Dana Priest on "the dots"

Not everyone in federal law enforcement is convinced the program is going to be of great help, Priest said. There's a concern among some that "you're piling on more hay on to the haystack where there's a needle." Others, though, believe it's "exactly what we need to do":

Dana Priest on the effectiveness

Much more from Audie's conversation with Priest is due on today's All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that streams or broadcasts the show. We'll attach the audio to this post this evening.

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