This is a mistake, Erik Kleinsmith told himself as he stared at his computer screen. He’d been agonizing over his orders. He considered disobeying them. He could make copies of all the data, send them off in the mail before anyone knew what had happened. He could still delete all the copies on his hard drive, but the backups would be safe. No one could say they hadn’t tried, that they hadn’t warned people.
The earnest thirty-five-year-old army major had drawn attention to himself as the leader of an innovative, some said renegade, band of intelligence analysts. Working under the code name Able Danger, Kleinsmith’s team had compiled an enormous digital dossier on a terrorist outfit called Al Qaeda. By the spring of 2000, it totaled two and a half terabytes, equal to about one tenth of all printed pages in the Library of Congress. This was priceless information, but also an alarm—the intelligence showed that Al Qaeda had established a presence inside the United States, and signs pointed to an imminent attack.
While the graybeards of intelligence at the CIA and in the Pentagon had come up empty handed, the army wanted to find Al Qaeda’s leaders, to capture or kill them. Kleinsmith believed he could show them how. That’s where he ran into his present troubles. Rather than rely on classified intelligence databases, which were often scant on details and hopelessly fragmentary, Kleinsmith created his Al Qaeda map with data drawn from the Internet, home to a bounty of chatter and observations about terrorists and holy war. Few outside Kleinsmith’s chain of command knew what he had discovered about terrorists in America, what secrets he and his analysts had stored in their data banks. They also didn’t know that the team had collected information on thousands of American citizens—including prominent government officials and politicians— during their massive data sweeps. On the Internet, intelligence about enemies mingled with the names of innocents. Good guys and bad were all in the same mix, and there was as yet no good way to sort it all out.
Army lawyers had put him on notice: Under military regulations, Kleinsmith could store his intelligence only for ninety days. It contained references to U.S. persons, and so all of it had to go. Even the inadvertent capture of such information amounted to domestic spying. Kleinsmith could go to jail.
As he stared at his computer terminal, Kleinsmith’s stomach flipflopped at the thought of what he was about to do. This is terrible. He pulled up the relevant files on his hard drive and hit the delete key. The blueprint of global terrorism vanished into the ether.