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It's telling that Coll describes "vacuum cleaner–like collection of electronic data worldwide" and "computer algorithms that sort valuable information from noise" as relative strengths.

How does he know the algorithms doing the sorting are valuable? Has he examined them or is he taking some anonymous intelligence agency source's word for it? What about the false sense of security and complacency that comes from the feeling that everything is being caught?

Has Coll ever forgotten where he put something on his hard drive and attempted to find it? Imagine doing that against a server farm containing petabytes of data. How much time is wasted just trying to traverse such an immense territory?

Would a smaller agency with less blind trust in technology produce better outcomes? I'd personally feel a lot more confident in an agency that had actual human beings living in or near the areas of interest, reading papers (in the local language!), listening to news reports (even state-sponsored propaganda), talking to people who live and work in that environment, etc.

Look at the outputs. For all of Coll's gee whiz marveling at our (ahem) awesome surveillance infrastructure, we still seem to be taken completely unawares by every major goddamn development on the global stage. That ain't my idea of ROI.


Reading Maddow's (excellent)tracing of the steps to permanent war has turned my dog walks into a time of reexamining those "awesome ... infrastructures..." (whether intelligence or military).

I think about how we naive we have been about what those capabilities are used for. You're right on about the impracticality of that great vacuum bag in Nevada! Take a step back and ask yourself why we would build a vast and unwieldy database that doesn't get the intelligence we need and hasn't for decades, as well as a huge and mega-equipped military that hasn't won a "war" in how long? Then at least play with the proposition (in my view a certainty) that these megastructures have different purposes altogether.

That they are ends in themselves (yes, I believe that) and/or they represent goals we have been distracted from noticing (yes, also probable)because we keep believing we are fighting conventional wars.

The R of your ROI isn't meant for you and me and other heirs of the Founders. We just chug along with our little TV's, our pledges of allegiance, and our quaint "thank you for your service." At best we and our kids in Afghanistan are pocket-lint for the real beneficiaries. During each decade since Eisenhower's statement the investment has more than doubled, I bet, not that our return has changed in value. Instead it comes back to haunt us once or twice a decade -- if you count Grenada and the Contras.

I think you mistake Coll's view of the issue. I don't fault Coll at all for what you call his gee-whiz marveling, and not just because boys will be boys! But I read him a lot and so maybe just have a different impression. I would fault him, though, for a kind of vinyl blandness and detachment that seems to possess the entire New America Foundation.


All I know about Coll is what's in that block quote, so I'll defer to your more extensive knowledge.

And yes, us boys love our gadgets.


Not extensive knowledge. Acquaintance!

Dan, BTW, did you see the David Brooks piece in the Times today just dripping with patronizing comments about kids "bursting with enthusiasm for some social entrepreneurship project: making a cheap water-purification system, starting a company that will empower Rwandan women by selling their crafts in boutiques around the world" -- versus "moral realists"?

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