More Tales of The Retroscope

The surveillance state has spent billions and billions of dollars building massive monitoring and data back-haul capabilities, with “fusion centers” that automate analytics and run pre-planned searches for stuff.

Officially, the floodgates opened after 9/11, but the US government has had agencies of one sort or another monitoring the civilian population since the 1900s. That manifested itself, early on, as the Bureau of Investigation’s Radical Division, which built a list of radicals (i.e.: people who disagreed with the government) that could be arrested at any time. Notable in retrospect was the hiring of J. Edgar Hoover as head of the intelligence division, in 1918. [Oddly, Hoover, who was profoundly suspicious of secret organizations, joined the masons, a secret organization, in 1920] Hoover’s work assembling a list of “radicals” came in handy during the Palmer Raids [wik] in which 3000 labor activists (and a few anarchists) were arrested.

I did a google image search for “retroscope” and look at this beauty!

The massive monitoring and analysis capabilities of today’s surveillance state are little more than an upgrade. A term of art is relevant, here, “the targeting problem” – once a target has been identified for surveillance, it’s straightforward to dig through their dirty laundry and figure out what they are up to.

Where the retroscope doesn’t help is predicting problems. It also doesn’t help automatically perform analysis to identify webs of relationship between targets. One of the premises of the fusion centers, and extremely complex software like Palantir, is that they’ll somehow flag suspects before they do something naughty. The limits of that control are pretty severe: you can set a trigger at a fusion center to notify the police if, say, the leader of the proud boys is landing at a Washington-area airport so that he can be picked up on vandalism charges. [cnn][wapo]

Police stopped a vehicle Tarrio had been in shortly after it entered the District, said Dustin Sternbeck, a D.C. police spokesman. He said it is believed that Tarrio, who lives in Miami, was coming into the District from the airport.

So, the fusion center was probably tracking his cell phone as soon as he arrived at the airport, then a DC squad car was waiting at the border of the jurisdiction to pick him up. He’s an asshole, but the pick up amounts to a side-stepping of inter-state jurisdictional protections. I’m assuming that, when the MAGA++ event was scheduled, some agent trolled through his data, saw he’d purchased a plane ticket, and there were discussions about whether or not to pick him up. Per the targeting problem, that all works: he’s a known target, so it’s merely a technical question of how to manage the data analysis and alerts. But, the published facts amount to “he was picked up crossing the DC line” not “there was a massive data-watching operation targeting him automatically, that alerted analysts whenever he did something interesting that might expose him.” That sounds a bit more … ominous.

Sternbeck said Tarrio is charged with one misdemeanor count of destruction of property in connection with the Dec. 12 burning of a banner stolen from Asbury United Methodist Church.

That’s a lot of work for a misdemeanor; it’s almost as though he’s been targeted for harassment by law enforcement. In this case I approve, but I’m not sure I trust the government to have this broad capability. Rewind back to the days of COINTELPRO, when the FBI was discovered to have penetrated many protest/radical organizations with agents in place, it’s an upgrade – now the protesters/radicals are being tracked by their cell phones, Expedia, Facebook, Google Maps [nbc] etc. The bottom line is that, if you want to do anything that might get you considered “naughty”, you need much better tradecraft than most people realize. Honestly, if I were a target for investigation, I have a hard time coming up with a scenario that would allow me to evade surveillance.

But, back to the targeting problem: the Nashville bomber was not only on the FBI’s “radar screen” he had been briefly looked at, then taken off it. [cnn] So much for: “if you see something, say something.”

A woman who said she was the girlfriend of the man who set off the Christmas Day explosion in Nashville told police last year he was making bombs in his recreational vehicle, according to a statement and documents the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department provided to CNN.

On August 21, 2019, police received a call from an attorney representing Pamela Perry, the woman who said she was the girlfriend of the bomber Anthony Warner, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department said Tuesday. Her attorney, Raymond Throckmorton, said she had made “suicidal threats to him via telephone.”

When police arrived at Perry’s home, they found two unloaded pistols near Perry, who said they belonged to Warner. She told officers she did not want them in the home any longer and that Warner was “building bombs in the RV trailer at his residence,” according to a “matter of record” report from the MNPD.

Sounds like she tried to do the right thing, even to the point of getting a lawyer involved. Building bombs is more than a misdemeanor, too. And, she specified exactly where the alleged bombs were being built; there is plenty of probable cause.

An officer observed Warner’s home for several days, but found no evidence of bomb making, according to Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake. It would have required a sign of a crime being committed, or that a bomb was being made, to obtain a legal search warrant or subpoena, Drake said.

“I believe officers did everything they could legally. Maybe we could have followed up more — hindsight is 20/20,” Drake said. “The officers did not have probable cause to get a search warrant. There was a call for service on a lady who had two guns, who needed care, and so we, you know, she needed some assistance. There was nothing else there to say OK, yeah — you have to have probable cause.”

Oh, wait, there was no probable cause because the police chief preferred to just tell a cop to cruise by and check the place out. Note that the witness specifically said that the perpetrator was building bombs in his RV, which, was correct. Getting a warrant would have been a piece of cake, except that officer flatfoot was frankly lazy. I hope that every building owner whose building was damaged sues NPD for professional negligence.

This is all to illustrate the targeting problem: they had perfect information about what was going on, but chose not to designate Warner as a target for surveillance, so he … um, I was going to write “slipped through the net” but that’s not the right expression; there was no net.

In fact, the NPD don’t appear to have contacted their local anti-terror fusion center and asked them to check Warner out. It is clear, from the evolving story, that Warner was discussing his suspicions with multiple people online; what would his purchase history have shown?

MNPD asked the FBI to check its databases for records of Warner and none were found, the FBI confirmed in a statement to CNN. On Monday, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation director David Rausch had said Warner, 63, had not previously been on law enforcement’s radar.

Someone’s lying, or the FBI’s expensive surveillance systems are crap. I wonder which? [I don’t wonder at all]

I don’t think that I want the FBI trolling through people’s histories, but there’s a consistent pattern here: someone informs the FBI of a possible terror attack, and the FBI responds that their surveillance systems don’t have the necessary information to investigate further. The same pattern played itself out on 9/11: the FBI even flagged the eventual hijackers to itself before ignoring its own analysis.

Meanwhile, in Nashville:

According to the police report and Throckmorton, the woman was experiencing a mental health crisis at the time. Officers called their mobile crisis division, and after talking with the woman, she agreed to be transported by ambulance for a psychological evaluation, Aaron said.

NPD isn’t being honest. If they were, they’d say, “We didn’t get a search warrant because we decided that the woman was crazy. Case closed.”

The surveillance state is not Big Brother; it’s Big Brother’s stupid Kid Brother.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Tarrio is charged with one misdemeanor count of destruction of property in connection with the Dec. 12 burning of a banner stolen from Asbury United Methodist Church.

    I can’t help thinking that a comparable act by a Black or a leftie would result in, at minimum, charges for both stealing the banner and lighting a fire in a public place.

  2. says

    Let us not disregard the possibility that the system is working perfectly.
    It just doesn’t care about these threats, because they are not fundamentally dangerous to the system itself.
    The system exists to preserve the system, not you or me.

    The moment the FBI detects a credible left wing electoral strategy, the surveillance state will swing into full effect.
    Indeed, arguably it already has.

  3. says

    Ian King@#2:
    The moment the FBI detects a credible left wing electoral strategy, the surveillance state will swing into full effect.

    Yep. They were pretty effective against the unions and labor organizers, back in the day. Why, they even managed to run down arch-criminal Eugene V. Debs.

  4. GenghisFaun says

    Looks like they’re sticking him with a couple of felony charges, too, for possession of high capacity magazines. And they might upgrade the blm banner burning to a hate crime.

  5. GenghisFaun says

    Which, of course, doesn’t validate the surveillance state. Just noting that they don’t appear to be laying their cards down for a mere misdemeanor.

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