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Our Crazy Security State: Good At Secret Searches, Lousy At Real Safety

This article is more than 6 years old.

It’s a shock but no surprise that alleged Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis received and retained security clearance despite an arrest record and apparent struggles with mental illness. We have a stupidly repressive security state. It excels at conducting illegal, wholesale surveillance of innocent Americans, but fails to recognize threats that a simple Google search could uncover. It’s like a paranoid homeowner who patrols his neighborhood with an assault rifle and shoots anything that moves, while leaving his front door wide open.

The vast scope of surveillance and massive data collection programs make it a highly insecure security bureaucracy, as Snowden demonstrated: in some ways, everyone and no one is in charge.

It’s good at collecting secrets (secretly) but bad at keeping them. The vast, post 9/11 security/surveillance complex comprising government agencies and private contractors is, “a hidden world, growing beyond control,” the Washington Post reported, back in 2010 (before Edward Snowden confirmed its reach.) Close to one million people hold top-secret security clearances, the Post surmised. The vast scope of surveillance and massive data collection programs make it a highly insecure security bureaucracy, as Snowden demonstrated: in some ways, everyone and no one is in charge.

"You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy,” President Obama declared, after the Snowden revelations, as if we expected either. Most grown-ups understand that liberty and security are relative; none of us will ever be absolutely safe or absolutely free. Many support measures that promise more security in exchange for less liberty, at least in theory. Few would bargain for what we may have received: less security in exchange for less liberty.

How do we evaluate the efficacy of domestic spying bureaucracies? Years after the National Security Agency started collecting data on virtually every domestic phone call, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Reggie Walton pressed for evidence of the data’s usefulness. He chided the government for “its noncompliance with Court orders” and “inaccurate descriptions” of its procedures.

Security state tsars offer general, unsubstantiated assurances that they’re keeping us safe without unduly invading our privacy. But we can’t trust the statements of officials who lie to Congress (with impunity) and mislead secret courts. I doubt they have any compunction about lying to us. We can’t trust Justice Department claims about successful terrorism prosecutions: they overstate conviction rates, according to a recent audit.

We can’t trust increasingly militarized police departments (as Radley Balko’s new book makes clear.) Consider the obvious costs and dubious benefits of the New York Police Department’s questionably legal spying program, exposed in “Enemies Within,” by Associated Press reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman. It targeted Muslims and mosques, as well as political protesters, intrusively collecting volumes of irrelevant information on innocent people, while overlooking an actual terrorist plot, eventually foiled in spite of the NYPD.

“Spotting homegrown terrorists before they strike” was the goal of the Department’s “Demographics Unit,” Apuzzo and Goldman observe. It was offered as justification for the “use of informants, secret recordings of sermons, surveillance of religious leaders, and infiltration of advocacy groups.” The Unit succeeded in violating privacy, speech and associational rights on a grand scale, while failing to identify an actual aspiring terrorist. “When it mattered most, those programs failed.”

When it mattered most, those programs failed.

Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman

Deterring domestic terrorism is probably what matters most to most Americans. It’s on the rise, if terrorism includes random mass murders in public places. “The pace of shootings has increased dramatically recently," Philip Bump reported in The Atlantic Wire. Starting in 2004, “incidents have occurred about once every 149 days … Since Obama became president, there's been a shooting every three months.”

Do you feel safer now, or simply less free?


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This program aired on September 20, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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