NY Post: Better a Bad Story than None at All (Able Danger)

August 27th, 2005 12:35 PM
Today’s New York Post (27 August) carries a story by Niles Lathem entitled “Military ‘Spied’ on Rice.” The good news is that the story ran at all. The bad news is the reporter demonstrated a brass-plated ignorance of how the Able Danger program operated.

The lede from this article says, “Cyber-sleuths working for a Pentagon intelligence unit that reportedly identified some of the 9/11 hijackers before the attack were fired by military officials, after they mistakenly pinpointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other prominent Americans as potential security risks....”

Able Danger is/was a computer program which does not target or “pinpoint” or “spy” on anyone. The very use of these verbs demonstrates a gross failure to understand Able Danger, and why it is a very powerful investigative tool. To use an example every reporter is well aware of, consider Google News.

This is a computer program that examines a huge data base, namely the entire output thousands of American and foreign news sources. It uses algorithms to find commonalities in that data. That’s how Google identifies the news subjects most often discussed at any time, and comes up with a lead story on that subject and hundreds of others on the same subject. Google “targets” nothing. It simply identifies patterns in the data.

Able Danger works the same way, except with a much larger data base. It might include an arrest record in Bangkok, a speech given in Hamburg, a government document in Iran. The algorithms, however, are similar – find all associations between names, subjects, dates and places. Such a program would naturally show anyone working in international relations, such as Dr. Condi Rice and Dr. Henry Kissinger, as “connected” to China and to all other major foreign powers.

That does not mean that such people are “potential security risks.” Once the computer is finished, humans can enter the picture and eliminate false conclusions that the computer – not knowing Condi Rice from Mata Hari – has made. If Able Danger was shut down during the Clinton Administration for developed associations with China, the radioactive names in the data were more likely Bernard Schwarz, Loral, and Mochtar Riyadi, not Condi Rice.

It is good to see more major media examination of Able Danger – what it was, why it was shut down, and why some are trying to bury the story now. It is unfortunate that most of the press doesn’t yet understand how it worked. Think Google News. Multiply by a million. Then you have it.