Security vs. Freedom: the False Choice
By Jeff Milchen
When Congress reacted to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, by passing the
"Patriot Act" just weeks later, many Representatives agreed to
support it only because the most drastic expansions of government power
were made temporary. Those provisions will not expire until 2005, but the
Bush administration seeks not only to make them permanent (without
evaluating their effectiveness or consequences) but to further expand
Inevitably this will generate renewed debate on "striking the right
balance" between freedom and safety. But to have meaningful
discussion, the premise that American freedom either enabled the crimes of
9/11 to occur or hinders the effectiveness of terrorism prevention should
That premise, underlying the "Patriot Act" and the Bush
administration's draft Domestic Security Enhancement Act ("Patriot
II") doesn't hold up to such scrutiny. No credible evidence has been
presented that legalizing more invasive technology and granting law
enforcement agencies the sweeping power to arrest, detain and spy on
citizens enhances the safety of Americans.
To the contrary, history suggests that allowing law officials to spy on
citizens based on their politics or to search property without judicially
scrutinized evidence typically wastes resources. The FBI's COINTELPRO
operations of the 1960s and '70s, including the government's Church
Commission Report, support this. Martin Luther King Jr., for one, was the
target of countless federal agents' investigations which produced
mountains of files, but no evidence of dangerous activity.
Rather than viewing political dissent - the focus of much FBI activity to
this day - as a danger sign, authorities should recognize it as a safety
valve that enhances stability. When opportunities to create peaceful
change are available, people are less likely to turn to violence.
America's high level of political freedom contributes substanitially to
the nation's comparatively low incidence of terrorism.
Besides, the most dangerous terrorists tend to keep a low profile, rather
than advocating publicly for social change. The Sept. 11 attackers, for
example, evidenced little or no public political or religious activism.
Government security agencies did have evidence that should have led to the
investigation of some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, but that crucial evidence
apparently was lost in an information overload.
Yet more information overload is what many Bush administration proposals
would create. For example, the Transportation Security Administration's
controversial Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS
II) purports to sort airline passengers according to risk potential. As
originally proposed, CAPPS II would have required that air passengers
check their Fourth Amendment rights along with their bags by forcing
disclosure of extensive personal information in order to fly.
Travel history, organizations you support, books you bought, and even your
credit rating were to be analyzed (no word yet on whether it's being
prompt or tardy in paying bills that enhances your terrorist tendencies)
to evaluate you. Sensibly, the TSA recently yielded to growing citizen
opposition and announced it was scaling back the information to be
gathered, but it has stonewalled requests for critical information.
Promoters of CAPPS argue that sacrificing privacy will enable most people
to check in with less hassle and enable security to focus on
"high-risk" passengers. But on closer inspection, this
arrangement would undermine air safety. Intelligent terrorist groups
readily could use these ratings to increase their odds of success. By
thoroughly testing who among them gains easy passage, they could minimize
risk of a thorough search at the critical time.
Perhaps the single most effective measure needed to prevent a Sept. 11
repeat has been implemented with zero cost to freedom -- securing cockpit
doors. Banning such potential weapons as box-cutters onboard was also a
sensible move that left freedom unscathed.
Another effective measure, bag matching, could be implemented at a much
lower cost than the CAPPS scheme and without encroaching on our privacy.
Already in effect at many foreign airports, bag matching simply prevents
luggage from flying on the aircraft unless the owner is on board. Though
this may not prevent a suicide bombing, unaccompanied luggage bombs caused
three of the worst air disasters of the 1980s, including the Pan Am
explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland.
In contrast to common-sense precautionary measures like these, the Bush
Administration’s Patriot Act II is brought forward with a few measures
that actually could help prevent terrorism surrounded by many that merely
move us toward a secretive police state. When Patriot II was leaked to the
public last January, a Department of Justice spokesperson denied that it
was draft legislation, but just months later on June 5 John Ashcroft asked
Congress to enact many of its measures.
Patriot II would go even further than the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996 in
permitting law enforcement to target people based on their politics rather
than evidence of crime. It effectively would re-authorize the CIA and FBI
to engage in disruption of activist groups -- a practice made illegal only
after serious and systemic abuses of that power.
Hiding Dangers from Citizens
The proposal also would revoke key elements of the Freedom of Information
Act, which prevents government from keeping secrets from citizens unless a
true security threat exists. Among other problems, this would place us at
greater risk of catastrophic chemical or nuclear accidents by stripping us
of our right to know about threats posed by toxins, spills or explosions
in our communities.
Chemical companies are responsible for tens of thousands of toxic releases
each year in the U.S. (reported incidents alone). According to the
Environmental Protection Agency, more than 120 chemical plants
individually could kill a million or more people in the event of an attack
or serious accident. The public availability of information, combined with
self-interest of local residents, is an important safeguard against such
Consider that the 1984 Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) catastrophe in
Bhopal, India killed far more people than any domestic act labeled as
terrorism. Those deaths resulted from willful endangerment by a
corporation cutting corners on basic safety measures combined with a lack
of public access to vital information—a situation Patriot II would
enable in the U.S.
An attack on chemical or nuclear plants in the U.S. could kill millions,
yet security at these facilities consistently has been proven inadequate
during mock attacks. More stringent inspections and security at
these facilities are another simple way to reduce vulnerability to attack,
but industry lobbying killed even modest proposed security improvements
last year. Worse, Congress just revived the perilous, economically
unfeasible (without corporate welfare) and rightfully extinct practice of
building nuclear plants by authorizing $16 billion of new federal
If we seek to improve security, why do we still lack any explanation of
how intelligence that should have prompted investigation of several 9-11
attackers was disregarded or unnoticed? When the space shuttle Columbia
disintegrated, investigations began almost immediately. Yet our government
waited almost a year to launch an official 9-11 inquiry and then
authorized less than one-tenth the budget that Kenneth Starr spent on the
Seeking Courage and Common Sense
The debate over sacrifices of Americans' freedoms is being engaged against
a backdrop of cynicism and the fear of a presidential administration
emboldened by disaster. As Wisconsin Democrat Russell D. Feingold, the
only Senator to oppose the Patriot Act, said, "A number of my
colleagues said I was right on the merits but felt they had to vote for
Now, more than ever, we should resist further erosions of our freedom and
banish investigations or harassment based on political activity, race or
any reason other than tangible evidence of criminal activity. By doing so,
we can ensure that law enforcement resources are used most effectively --
pursuing valid leads and real suspects of crime, not suppressing healthy
Defending our Constitution does not hinder our safety, it enhances it.
Jeff Milchen directs ReclaimDemocracy.org,
a nonprofit organization working for systemic change to restore citizen
authority over corporations and to revitalize American democracy. Thius
article also is available in
For further exploration:
Domestic Security Enhancement ACT (Patriot Act II) text (large pdf file): http://publicintegrity.org/dtaweb/downloads/Story_01_020703_Doc_1.pdf
Formula for turning CAPPS II into an insurance tool for terrorists: http://swiss.ai.mit.edu/6805/student-papers/spring02-papers/caps.htm#_ftnref14