The Charlie Hebdo Attack: Where was the NSA?

© Josh Sager – January 2015

Over the last two years, the NSA and American intelligence complex have made the case that their bulk-data collection programs are vital to protecting the national security and effective tools in locating terrorists. These interests argue that their extra-judicial (and almost certainly unconstitutional) programs allow intelligence organizations to draw complex and accurate contact networks that make it possible for them to locate terrorists through analyzing their communications.


Theoretically, the collection of metadata can be an extremely effective way of mapping out an individual’s life. That said, it is time consuming and, when applied in an overly broad manner, can lose its effectiveness (there is simply too much data to sift through any analyze if the collections network is too large).

As of yet, the NSA and proponents of these programs have been unable to produce a single example where the mass collection of metadata or data has resulted in a terrorist attack being aborted—unfortunately, the recent terrorist shooting in France only serves to reinforce this pattern of failure.

Despite the lack of evidence supporting the efficacy of these programs, some American politicians and pundits have used the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack to justify expanding the NSA spy infrastructure even more.

In response to these people, I just have to ask: If the NSA’s program is necessary to stop terrorist attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo, why didn’t the NSA locate the shooters before they committed their attack?

The Failure of Bulk Surveillance

It was revealed in late 2013 that the NSA was spying on over 70 million French digital devices (including the cell phone of the French president), thus it is reasonable to assume that the NSA has collected the data of the shooters. Both shooters had extensive connections within the extreme Islamist community that should have flagged them as high-priority risks.


Cherif Kouachi was incarcerated in 2005 by the French police while trying to travel to Iraq in order to fight US troops with Al Qaida. After serving less than 2 years, Kouachi was arrested again in 2008 when he was caught recruiting French citizens to go aid extremists in Iraq—while he was sentenced to three years for this, more than half of his sentence was suspended.

Said Kouachi was friends with Umar Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” and had traveled to Yemen to train with Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in 2011. The Yemeni intelligence services passed their information on Said to the US, who later passed it on to the French authorities when Said returned home.

Put simply, both shooters should have been on a short-list of radicalized French Muslims to watch closely. If the NSA claims the right to watch everybody, then these brothers most certainly should have been included (if only because of their pasts). If the NSA’s programs were truly effective in analyzing entire populations for threats of violence and intercepting them, then these shooters would have been caught before they committed their crime.

Even after the attack, there is no evidence that the NSA had any part in identifying the shooters or even providing a useful suspect pool. The shooters were identified through traditional investigative methods, including the discovery of an ID in the stolen car that was used during the getaway and the driver turning himself in to police (he may not have known what was going to happen at the paper, as he had no history of Islamist terrorism, didn’t appear to have a weapon, and was significantly younger than the shooters).

In a vacuum, saying that this one failure disproves the effectiveness of bulk metadata collection would be fallacious—mistakes are made and you need to look at the bulk of the evidence to prevent one outlier from skewing your analysis. Unfortunately, the failures of the NSA in the Charlie Hebdo case also exist in the Boston Marathon Bombing case, as well as a variety of right wing terrorist attacks that have occurred during the lifetime of the NSA’s program. In no known instance has the NSA successfully predicted an attack

Creating the Haystack for the Needle

One major flaw in the NSA’s mass surveillance program is that it serves to create a massive data “haystack” that threatens to conceal the few “needles” that represent terrorists and people who are likely to become terrorists. As shown in the Charlie Hebdo case, even when individuals are previously identified as terrorist sympathizers, they can be overshadowed in the massive flood of data coming into the system.


This is a model of just one person’s contacts to two degrees.

In short, if you try to collect data on everybody, you will inevitably lose focus on the very small minority who may merit scrutiny.

If intelligence agencies were to focus on known terrorists and branch out from their contacts, rather than simply trying to surveil as many phones as possible, they would waste less money and be more effective. Without the white noise produced by clearly irrelevant collections, the real threats could be seen in greater contrast and have more time/resources dedicated to them.

The True Goal of Surveillance

Given the clear flaws in the NSA’s approach to finding terrorists via bulk data collection, one wonders why they continue to go down such a flawed path—that is, if one assumes that their main goal while during bulk data collection is to fight terrorism.

The American intelligence infrastructure has a long and sordid history of using its power to serve the interests of American corporations and economic interests. After all, the term “Banana Republic” was originally coined to mock how the CIA deposed a democratically elected president of Guatemala to prevent him from nationalizing some of the lands owned by the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita) and distributing them to the poor.

Given this history, there is good reason to worry that the NSA is simply using the threat of terrorism to justify a surveillance program that they intend to use for other purposes. This would make sense, as a bulk surveillance programs may be ineffective in hunting terrorists, but they have some extremely effective uses in suppressing dissent and committing economic espionage.

For example, the NSA is confirmed to have spied upon the Brazilian state-owned oil company PetroBras, as well as the Mexican president’s economic advisors—obviously, neither of these targets represent a realistic terrorist threats. However, in both these cases, the information gathered could have extremely lucrative economic and diplomatic benefits (ex. to predict export levels and get insider information about those economies).

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher market attacks, the American and French people must not fall victim to fear mongering and allow those in power to seize more liberties with our liberty. We must avoid turning the Charlie Hebdo attack into an excuse for things that are both irrelevant to protecting the next attack and socially unjustifiable without using terrorism as an excuse. Truly, the people who died in these attacks don’t deserve to be used as tools to violate the rights of the rest of us.

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