The Case for Surveillance
How does any civilized nation cope with fanatical barbarism? What kind of people will plot to murder thousands--so crazed with hate they will kill their own families for the cause? Even after 9/11 we have been slow to recognize the nature of the beast we face. It is hard for us to comprehend the mentality of, say, the group of 21 homegrown suicidal jihadists apprehended last year in Britain. We now know not only that they were prepared to blow up 10 civilian airliners flying from London to the United States--which might have killed as many as 3,500 innocent people--but also that they planned to avoid airport scrutiny by traveling with their wives and children and were thus prepared to execute their nearest and dearest.
As a free society, we are remarkably vulnerable. Our open borders permit second-generation terrorists from Europe to infiltrate under the legal visa waiver program. We admit many imams from Egypt and Pakistan trained in Saudi Arabia under the extremist perversion of Islam known as Wahhabism. The consequences of our tolerance are spelled out in a recent report by the New York City Police Counterterrorism Department. It focuses on how difficult it is to follow the "trajectory of radicalization"--the behavior and whereabouts of homegrown radical Islamists. That New York report has to be read with the most recent National Intelligence Estimate that the external threat from al Qaeda has not waned despite expanded worldwide counterterrorism efforts.
This is the context in which to consider the protests about tightening electronic surveillance, led by the liberal New York Times and the ultraliberal New Yorker and espoused by Democrats who watered down the recent reform legislation--including an insistence that it be reviewed in six months. How far should security concerns impinge on privacy? The administration says the balance has to be recalibrated. The trouble is that the administration has lost much of its moral authority. As USA Today put it, the White House "has all the credibility of a teenager who has squandered his allowance and is demanding more money."
True--but on this issue, it has a real case.
Until the law was changed, bin Laden himself could have made a telephone call from Waziristan to Singapore and, if it were carried on a fiber optic cable that passes through the United States (as are the vast majority of long-distance calls), we would not have been able to listen without prior permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. FISA had to approve all interceptions of foreign-to-foreign communications coming through American wires, fiber optic cables, and switching stations. With warrants to the FISA court backed up, as much as two thirds of potential intelligence from U.S. eavesdropping capabilities was being lost. The director of national intelligence, Adm. Mike McConnell, gave Congress specific examples, such as one involving the capture of three American soldiers in Iraq.
Broader reach. Congress was right to eliminate the restrictions. Warrantless wiretaps will no longer be limited to "known foreign terrorists" but will include surveillance of the larger universe of "foreign targets," including America's enemies who are state actors and others not linked directly to al Qaeda, on the theory that if you can't find the needle, you have to examine the haystack.