Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism

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. However, 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.

Furthermore, focusing on relatively ineffective surveillance measures and marginally effective efforts to mitigate the effects of an attack (such as stockpiling antidotes and vaccines and training emergency personnel) diverts attention from measures that really could be effective in reducing the chances of a WMD attack on U.S. soil.

The best way to lessen the chances of an attack that could cause hundreds of thousands or even millions of casualties is to eliminate the motive for such an attack. Terrorists attack U.S. targets because they perceive that the United States is a hegemonic superpower that often intervenes in the affairs of other nations and groups. Both President Clinton and the Defense Science Board admit that there is a correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and acts of terrorism directed against the United States. The board also noted that the spread of WMD technology and the increased willingness of terrorists to inflict mass casualties have made such an attack more likely.

Yet even with the demise of its major worldwide adversary the Soviet Union the United States has continued to intervene anywhere and everywhere around the world. Getting involved in ethnic conflicts, such as those in Bosnia and Somalia, in perpetually volatile regions of the world that have no strategic value actually undermines U.S. security. After the Cold War, extending the U.S. defense perimeter far forward is no longer necessary and may be counterproductive in a changed strategic environment where the weakest actors in the international system-terrorists-can effectively attack the homeland of a superpower. To paraphrase Frederick the Great, defending everything is defending nothing.

Most of the ethnic instability or interstate rivalries creating turmoil have nothing to do with vital U.S. security interests. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this maxim also applies to defending Persian Gulf oil. The oil market has changed dramatically since the 1970s. (Even then, the oil shortages reduced the nation’s gross domestic product by a scant 0.35 percent.) New technology has improved energy efficiency and made it possible to tap new sources of oil, resulting in the lowest oil prices since the late 1960s. Thus, the Persian Gulf supplies less of the world’s oil now than it did back then. Before the Gulf War, prominent economists from across the political spectrum cautioned that defending oil was not a proper justification for war. Instability has always existed in the world and will continue to do so. The United States should intervene decisively only in rare instances when a narrowly defined set of vital interests is at stake. As Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, stated, “Don’t make enemies, [but] if you do, don’t treat them gently.”

Such a policy would avoid unnecessarily inflaming ethnic groups and nations that could spawn terrorist attacks. It would also enable the U.S. government to avoid imposing restrictions on liberties that damage the American way of life. A policy of military restraint overseas would obviate the need to destroy the key tenets of American society in an attempt to save it. Flailing about by curtailing civil liberties in an attempt to prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack of uncertain probability is like removing a lung to reduce the chances that the patient may someday develop lung cancer. In contrast, adopting a policy of military restraint is like getting the patient to stop smoking. It may not be easy to accomplish (especially for a superpower with a large ego), but it is the most intelligent course.

Cite this Article

Eland, Ivan. “Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism.” Issues in Science and Technology 15, no. 1 (Fall 1998).

Vol. XV, No. 1, Fall 1998