IT Overwhelmed by Realities of War


by Tony Kontzer

Forgive my skepticism that the U.S. Government can continue to live up to its promise of making the world safe for democracy (or, more accurately, Americans).

I'm not even sure I really want them to do that, but let's say for the sake of argument that this really is their job. They're really struggling, in large part because of the technological tasks at hand, and all signs point toward continued difficulties.

Take this fascinating New York Times report detailing how the U.S. military can't keep up with all the video collected by its fast-growing fleet of remote-controlled drone planes in Afghanistan. As someone who can't keep up with pictures and videos of my new baby boy--never mind the tens of thousands of photos and hours and hours of video of my previous 43 years and 11 months--I can certainly empathize with the problem.

But that doesn't excuse the fact that we, as a nation, have invested billions upon billions of dollars over the past 8-plus paranoia-filled years to build a technological web of defense against terrorists and, really, have very little to show for it other than some gigantically impressive, and ultimately totally ineffective, information-analysis systems.

How else to explain the total failure that might have led to a plane full of Christmas day travelers being blown up had the accused terrorist in question, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, not bungled the job? In the days since the failed attack, it's become apparent that it wasn't a lack of information that let Abdulmutallab board that plane with the explosive materials. It was a) an inability to "connect the dots" of terrorist intelligence coming in from a variety of sources, and b) woeful airline security procedures.

With all of this in mind, I can't shake this mental image of a bunch of military and national security "experts" sucking down Red Bulls and fuddling with their very expensive computers, unable to piece together various reports and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data, from terrorist watch lists to surveillance video, being thrown at them. ("Hey, what's behind that rock? Oh, it's just another rock.")

Why are we still flailing about so helplessly in "securing our interests"? Maybe it's because it's an impossible task. Asking a group of human beings--even a huge group of human beings backed by an equally huge armament of super-smart technologies--to scour years worth of video, track movements of suspected terrorists all over the globe while also matching the movements of one against another, and then find these terrorist needles in the giant haystack of people entering airports all over the country is a laughable goal. A noble goal, yes, but a laughable one.

Something tells me that if we put all that money and know-how into solving simpler, more pressing issues--health care, the economy, poverty in our inner cities, domestic abuse, mental illness, you name it--we'd ultimately realize a lot more bang for our buck. It's an old story, with different villains and new problems, but we need to keep retelling it until we get it right.


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