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Power to the Private Sector

Both the Washington Post and the New York Sun are reporting on a major snafu involving Osama bin Laden’s last videotape.

It seems that the SITE Intelligence Group—a private firm that tracks terrorist activities online and is headed by Ritz Katz, an Israeli citizen born in Iraq and now living in the U.S.—managed to get an advance copy of bin Laden’s rantings from an al Qaeda server. SITE shared its haul with the White House and the National Counterterrorism Center with the proviso that it was meant to be kept strictly confidential to protect SITE’s sources. Within hours the video leaked to the press, however, and apparently al Qaeda webmasters were able to shut down the anomaly that SITE had exploited to keep tabs on the terrorists.

This story is disturbing on several levels: first, for the lack of security within the U.S. government (which makes other governments wary of sharing confidential information) and second, for the apparent lack of capacity within the U.S. intelligence community. With all the billions we spend on surveiling al Qaeda, is it really the case that a small, non-governmental organization can get its hands on a major al Qaeda video before the government can? It’s hard to know for sure because the government is never going to come clean about what it does and does not know, but the high-level officials quoted in these news articles certainly did not dispute the notion that SITE can find out things the government can’t.

This seems further to confirm the general impression of ineptitude on the part of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. (See Tim Weiner’s meticulously researched book, Legacy of Ashes, for details of this sorry story’s stretching back to the 1940’s.) There is, however, a silver lining to this news. It is good to know that the private sector is filling in where government lags behind.

That is precisely what we should be doing—taking advantage of our strengths as a society to compensate for the weaknesses of our government. There are a lot of smart, entrepreneurial people in America; and while most of them devote their energies to the “business of America”—i.e., business—some can be very effective freelance terrorist-fighters. In the past, I have suggested mobilizing an army of geeks to fight al Qaeda online; that is precisely what the SITE folks are doing, and more power to them.

In fact, as I write in my latest book, War Made New, the Information Age increasingly is taking power away from large, hierarchical, centralized organizations like the U.S. government and giving more power to small, nimble, decentralized, networked entities like al Qaeda. But SITE and its ilk can be just as nimble and networked as al Qaeda. They can be effective in ways that the lumbering U.S. government cannot. Instead of treating them as unwelcome competition, the government would be well advised to encourage our NGO’s to battle their NGO’s.



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