Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Holder Makes the U.S. Less Safe

Eric Holder oversees the most politicized Department of Justice in American history. Every attorney general chooses his or her battles. Holder’s legacy—beyond the Fast and Furious gun running boondoggle—will be an obsession with race. Jonathan Tobin is right to label Holder’s latest move a war against voter integrity.

As important as what Holder does is what he chooses not to do, however: Whether the Obama administration likes it or not, the United States is engaged in a war against terrorism or, if Obama and Holder prefer, a war against man-made disasters.

In July 2000, the National Commission on Terrorism red-flagged the lack of trained American linguistics in languages important to U.S. national security. “All U.S. government agencies face a drastic shortage of linguists to translate raw data into useful information. This shortage has a direct impact on counterterrorism efforts,” the Commission reported. In 2004, despite the 9/11 shock which underlined the Commission’s findings, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report detailing how “The FBI’s electronic surveillance collection in languages primarily related to counterterrorism activities (i.e., Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Pashto) has increased by 45 percent, when comparing total collection in Fiscal Year (FY) 2003 to total collection in FY 2001. Text collection in these languages has increased 566 percent….” Just because material was collected, however, did not mean that the Justice Department had the capacity to listen to it or translate it: “Since September 11, 2001, more than 119,000 hours of … counterterrorism languages have not been reviewed. Additionally, over 370,000 hours of audio in languages associated with counterintelligence activities have not been reviewed…,” the report found.

In 2009, the Office of the Inspector General issued a follow-up report. The news was not good: Between FY 2006 and 2008, it found “the FBI did not review 14.2 million (31 percent) of the 46 million electronic files it collected….” The report continued, “For counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations between FYs 2003 and 2008 and for criminal investigations between FYs 2005 and 2008, we found that the FBI did not review 1.2 million hours (25 percent) of the 4.8 million audio hours it collected.”

Granted, that deficit occurred during the Bush administration, and so the Bush administration bears blame for the deficit which accrued during its time. But Obama asserted throughout his campaign that Bush had mishandled U.S. security, and that he could do a better job. He appointed Holder to be his point man.

And the results? Alas, Holder’s Justice Department has yet to audit—or at least report—its linguistic and monitoring deficit. Civil libertarians and the press can debate until they are blue in the face what American officials should monitor and how extensive surveillance can be with or without a warrant. However, unless Holder’s Justice Department actually listens to what it records, the only certainty is that the United States is less safe than it should be.