Editor’s Note: One of the most neglected but
important questions about the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks is whether
they were, in effect, a sucker punch from a marginal group of extremists
who succeeded because a new American administration let its guard down.
If that is the case, then the massive
retaliation launched by the United States, which has gone far beyond
attacking al-Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan, may be viewed as a dangerous
– and possibly counter-productive – overreaction, a classic example of
playing into an enemy’s hands.
The Bush administration’s response to the Sept.
11 attacks has included invading another Muslim country, Iraq, which had
little or no connection to al-Qaeda; tolerating abuse of detainees in
secret prisons to the detriment of America’s image around the world; and
restricting civil liberties at home.
The following essay by the Independent
Institute's Ivan Eland questions whether George W. Bush and Congress
have improved the security of Americans with their post-Sept. 11
policies – or just made a bad situation worse:
To help the agency in its efforts, in
2001, the Congress recklessly passed and is now about to renew the USA
PATRIOT Act, which dramatically increased the surveillance powers of law
Yet, the truth is that terrorism (even
including the 9/11 attacks) is a rare phenomenon in North America that
kills far fewer people than ordinary crime, car accidents, or medical
problems. As tragic as the 3,000 deaths from the aberrant 9/11 strikes
were, the worst effect of those incidents was the self-inflicted wound
from the conversion of America from the “land of the free” to the “land
of the watched.”
The PATRIOT Act gives the FBI the
power to collect information on people who are not suspected of
committing a crime. For example, the FBI can issue a “national security
letter” to obtain a person’s financial, library, telephone, Internet,
and e-mail records, as well as an individual’s customer and employment
history with businesses, by merely certifying that the information is
“sought for” or “relevant to” an investigation “to protect against
international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”
Thus, the FBI can nose into the
affairs of anyone who comes into contact with a suspected terrorist and
will now retain, in its database even after the investigation is closed,
the information gathered on innocent people. Visions spring to mind of
FBI agents poring over computer-generated lists of anyone who has ever
attended a Cat Stevens concert.
Even worse, such national security
letters can be issued by FBI supervisors in the field and need no
approval by a prosecutor, grand jury, or judge. National security
letters would appear to run directly afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s
Fourth Amendment, which states that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon
probable cause [that the person has committed a crime], supported by
Oath or affirmation…”
In guaranteeing this vital civil
liberty in the Bill of Rights, the founders made no exception even for
alleged “national security” considerations. Furthermore, those
businesses or libraries served by the letters cannot tell the targets of
the searches about them, which some courts have ruled violates the First
Amendment rights of free speech.
The FBI has also stiff-armed
congressional inquiries into how the secret letters are being used.
Finally, according the Washington Post, the FBI has yet to offer
any example of a terrorist plot being disrupted by a national security
The national security letter, however,
is only one of the many provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that broaden
government surveillance powers while having little demonstrable effect
on preventing terrorism.
At the same time, these provisions
erode, by diminishing judicial or congressional oversight, the checks
and balances of the Constitution. And this is not the first time that
expanded law enforcement powers have proved ineffectual.
In 1996, the Anti-Terrorism and
Effective Death Penalty Act severely restricted civil liberties in the
United States but did not prevent the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center five years later.
Why the American people repeatedly reward failure by tolerating
increases in the authority and budgets of government security agencies
is a mystery.
In addition to the pernicious direct
effects of all this amplified government surveillance on the American
public, the indirect effects may be far worse.
In an age of big government, the
business and non-profit sectors tend to take their cues as to what is
acceptable from the government. Increased government surveillance
creates a general societal norm for increased surveillance in the
For example, until Congress made their
use by businesses illegal, private employers were following the lead of
government security agencies by administering demonstrably unreliable
polygraph tests to their employees. Even now, some businesses, which at
least rhetorically advocate economic liberty, and some non-profit
organizations that propound individual liberty regularly monitor their
employees’ e-mail correspondence and open their mail.
One can argue that there is a legal
difference between the government and private entities engaging in such
Orwellian practices, but the private sector is undeniably reacting,
whether consciously or subconsciously, to social norms heavily
influenced by government action. One would hope that the private and
non-profit sectors would be more enlightened than the government.
After all, such oppressive
surveillance of ordinary employees—where no evidence of wrong-doing
exists—causes anger and morale problems among employees, drives some
talented workers to “vote with their feet” to less intrusive employers,
and wastes valuable executive time and resources on the unnecessary
control of employees.
Communism in Eastern Bloc nations
failed because so many societal resources were wasted on control,
leaving few available for individual initiative and creativity. Liberty
and privacy make people happy, creative, productive, and rich.
The U.S. government—and the businesses
and non-profit groups that are following the “control-oriented” social
norms fostered by government action—should take heed and let freedom
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.