Belgian Police Overwhelmed By…Mass Surveillance?

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Buzzfeed’s Mitch Prothero reported on the day of the Brussels attacks that “Belgian Authorities [Are] Overwhelmed By Terror Investigations“. He quotes a “Belgian counterterrorism official”, talking prior to the attacks, as having told him that:

[D]ue to the small size of the Belgian government and the huge numbers of open investigations — into Belgian citizens suspected of either joining ISIS, being part of radical groups in Belgium, and the ongoing investigations into last November’s attacks in Paris, which appeared to be at least partially planned in Brussels and saw the participation of several Belgian citizens and residents — virtually every police detective and military intelligence officer in the country was focused on international jihadi investigations. “We just don’t have the people to watch anything else and, frankly, we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said. “It’s literally an impossible situation and, honestly, it’s very grave.”

This icorroborates a major part of this blog – and our group’s – analysis of the surveillance state: That it generates so many false leads that it drowns law enforcement in data they can’t reasonably analyze or follow up on.

As a comparison, consider this comment from Michael Downing, deputy LAPD police chief and head of their counterterrorism unit, in 2012:


“[suspicious activity reporting has] flooded fusion centers, law enforcement, and other security entities with white noise; [the profusion of SAR reports] complicates the intelligence process and distorts resource allocation and deployment decisions.”

This is not a sustainable situation. Chasing down everyone with “terror links” massively diverts resources from the investigation of more ordinary crimes. The vast majority of people living in Molenbeek are innocent of any involvement in crime, and do not deserve to have their lives made worse in the name of fighting Terrorism. Mass murders like this matter greatly, but the state should not paralyze its ability to investigate other crimes. This is probably a great time in Belgium to be, say, a pedophile or a corrupt politician, because terrorism is now the sole priority, and mass surveillance to thwart it generates enormous numbers of false leads.

We preach a better way – the way of the Fourth Amendment, here in the US, and of Article 8, in the EU. If you don’t have evidence that someone is involved in actual criminal activity, don’t keep an “open file” on them, and don’t start an “international jihadi investigation” on them. Don’t deceive yourself that you can “pro-actively disrupt” plots that involve, say, a husband and wife, or two brothers talking to one another, through mass surveillance. Accept that there are limits to what it can do, and to what the public expects you to do. A narrower focus, on less, but better information, is likely to lead to better results.

Belgium represents a dystopian future for US law enforcement. The Belgians have already tried actual martial law; they’ve already thrown their civil liberties overboard; the country is polarized between its native residents and its immigrant population, who are thrown on the defensive; and that polarization reduces the ability of the police to investigate crimes of all kinds. Does any of this sound familiar?

We have a choice about which path to tread. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are careening down the darker path, arguing for patrols of “Muslim neighborhoods” and “torture.” Clinton, with an eye on the general election, is calling for “more surveillance of soft targets” here in the US – the same path, but expressed more politely and with less explicit bigotry. John Kasich and Jill Stein are standing up proudly for another, better way, where we don’t give in to suspicion on the basis of religion, and we don’t assume that more surveillance is the answer.

The lines have been drawn. Figure out where you stand. With every attack, the surveillance ratchet tightens up a notch. Join us, and help to loosen it, before it’s too late.

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