Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism

By Eland, Ivan | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism


Eland, Ivan, Issues in Science and Technology


The key to stopping terrorists is to be found in foreign policy, not aggressive policing of citizens.

In a little-noticed appearance before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in late June of 1998, Secretary of Defense William Cohen did some thinking out loud about trading off civil liberties in the fight against terrorists armed with biological weapons. His thoughts are unsettling, to say the least. He suggested that the American public would be inclined to accept more intrusive domestic spying and diminished civil liberties in order to allow government to gain more intelligence on potential terrorist activities.

In his remarks, Cohen said that the need for better intelligence to combat terrorism would mean that U.S. citizens would be scrutinized more. It would mean, he said, that "your liberty suddenly starts to get infringed upon. And this is the real challenge for a free society: How do you reconcile the threats that are likely to come in the future with the inherent and the constitutional protections that we have as far as the right of privacy? Right now, we have yet to contend with this. We haven't faced up to it."

But he said that if a major terrorist bombing were to occur, perhaps accompanied by the use of chemical weapons, the American people would accept a diminishment of their civil liberties. "I think the first instinct will be protect us. Do whatever it takes to protect us. If that means more intelligence, get more intelligence. If that means we give up more privacy, let's give up more privacy. We have to deal with this and think about it now before it takes place in terms of what we are able to tolerate as a free and democratic society when you're faced with this kind of potentiality."

If this was a trial balloon that could portend a policy shift by the administration, it's crucial that everyone understand how seriously it would undermine the American way of life in the name of providing dubious protection from external threats. Increased domestic snooping would be both misguided and harmful. And it is unlikely to afford much added protection against terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) (that is, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons). The Defense Science Board has admitted that preventing biological attacks is more challenging (because of the difficulty of gaining intelligence about the production, transportation, and delivery of such agents) than is mitigating the effects after the attack has occurred (which is also difficult). Terrorist groups are hard to penetrate, even by the best intelligence agents and undercover law enforcement officials, because they are small and often composed of committed zealots. At the same time, law enforcement agencies and other organizations have the tendency to stretch and abuse any increased powers of investigation. For example, the FBI spied on and harassed Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. The Army conducted surveillance on Americans at home during the Vietnam War. The law enforcement community might use the threat of terrorist attacks with WMD as an excuse to expand its power of investigation far beyond appropriate levels.

In his remarks, Secretary Cohen seemed to imply that civil liberties should be undermined sooner rather than later and that reducing liberties now might preclude a greater constriction of them after an attack. Although the threat of an attack is real, it may or may not occur. A preemptive surrender of civil liberties is therefore most ill-advised. Undermining civil liberties through increased surveillance is not the best way to deal with an attack and would not preclude a draconian suppression of liberty in the wake of a calamitous attack. In fact, an earlier constriction might set a precedent for even harsher measures later. …

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