In the weeks after September 11th, the press and
the populace continue to repeat the mantra that
some civil liberties must be surrendered to gain
some security. This instinct is understandable
immediately after the attack, but it's only half
the story. We must remember that sometimes civil
liberties help stop crime and prevent terrorism.
Sometimes those amendments are more than just a
wet French kiss to the evil doers -- sometimes they provide security and speed the delivery of
Consider the writ of habeus corpus. In the past,
the U.S. government honored the tradition of
justifying why it was holding a prisoner. Now, the
Department of Justice refuses to answer many
questions at all about the hundreds if not
thousands of detainees.
This attitude may have made sense in the maelstrom, but now the stonewalling is just an impediment to solving the crimes. Public indictments and open courtrooms
help everyone listen, understand and even
contribute. Perhaps a biology grad student might
recognize one of the people in jail as someone who
asked strange questions about anthrax. Perhaps a
crop duster salesman might see a photo in the
paper and remember a fast talking man with a pile
of cash who wanted to buy a plane.
There more than a million possible ways that
public disclosure can help because there are
millions of Americans who might know something.
The police love shows like "America's Most Wanted"
because they let millions of eyes contribute.
Secrecy forces them to do all of the legwork on
their own. Publicity cuts to the chase.
Most of the other so-called civil liberties also
help fight crime. Many opponents of the Second
Amendment are rethinking their stance after
watching the passengers on Flight 93 fight back
against the terrorists. There's no doubt that
hijacking would be riskier if we armed the pilots,
the flight attendents and perhaps even passengers
with good marksmanship training and a clear
Consider the U.S. Government's new plan to make it
easier to tap phones and Internet communications
without a warrant. The paperwork may be onerous,
but it can help investigators contain the damage
when security breaches occur. We can only hope
that former FBI agent and accused Russian spy
Robert Hanssen left behind a paper trail of
warrants so we know the secrets he betrayed.
The danger of wayward police officers is a real
problem. The Chicago police force recently
negotiated a plea agreement a criminal who used
police databases to track the rental cars used by
jewelery couriers in order to rob them. He didn't
need to break in, though, because he was Chief of
But the police are not just the only problem
because criminals often find access to
information. Drug dealers and their hacker friends
have exploited police databases before. The clever
dealers looked up potential customers and only
sold to those with a long record of criminal
convictions. The clean customers might have been
Of course, these databases can help the public if
they're accurate and made public. Megan's Law was
controversial and fought by some civil
libertarians, but it did force the public
disclosure of the homes of convicted sexual
predators. An extra watchful eye can only help.
But the U.S. Government's behavior in the
aftermath of the attack has been
counterproductive. They want to amass huge
databases, but keep them secret.
Many civil libertarians are also fighting against
the FBI's new plan to install backdoors in
computer operating systems so they can snoop on
potential bad guys. This may make their life
easier, but it will also help Russian spies and
others who might discover the hole. Can we really
be sure that this backdoor will remain secret if
we can't protect the secrets of the atomic bomb?
Remember that one of the Cuban experts in the
national security infrastructure was arrested for,
of all things, spying for Cuba. We need to balance
the value of these tools with the certainty that
they'll fall into enemy hands.
The FBI is also floating plans to centralize the
Internet and ensure that all traffic flows through
a few central choke points where they can listen
in as needed. This is only bound to weaken the
Internet in case of attack. The phone system has
been modified to their specifications and it is
still not functioning in lower Manhattan. Why? The
blast knocked it out.
The Internet, though, was designed to withstand
attack and destruction. Many companies restarted
their Internet connection with strange but
wonderful inventions that broadcast the data over
laser beams or radio waves. Requiring all data to
flow through some central surveillance mechanism
would destroy this resilence. The CIA was just one
of the agencies that lost an office in the World
Trade Center's destruction.
The list goes on and on. Civil liberties did not
emerge because evil doers hacked into the
constitution and inserted them. The people agreed
upon them and tweaked them over the years to
ensure an optimal balance. Open government, public
courts, and careful regulation can ensure that
everyone can participate in finding a just and
honorable solution. We should remember this now
that the urgency is fading and we seek to rebuild
the land of liberty and justice for all.