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Indeed, they point to the effectiveness of old-fashioned intelligence and police work, where authorities keep tabs on people and groups with well-known reputations for violence and terrorism (Zazi was picked up based on tips from British agents; as a former Drug Enforcment Adminstration informant (!), Headley was well-known to investigators).
Surveillance-state supporters are constantly invoking the “needle-in-the-haystack” metaphor, the idea being that finding terrorists requires patient sifting through huge mounds of extraneous material. It’s odd then, isn’t it, that the basic urge is always to increase the size of the haystack rather than decrease it. Consider how The PATRIOT Act vastly increased the number of “currency transaction reports” (CTRs) that banks needed to file with the federal government in the name of outing terrorist money flows. Originally created to help snag drug kingpins, some 12 million CTRs were being filed annually before 9/11—a number that was already overwhelming any ability to use the information effectively. Creating a bigger haystack isn’t a smart way to find bad guys hidden within.
The same dynamic is at work in arguably the most-visible and least-popular excresence of the war on terror: the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the imposition of invasive and time-consuming procedures at the nation’s airports. The threat of hijacked planes being used as missiles was effectively ended on the morning of 9/11 itself, when passengers charged hijackers on United Flt 93 and drove the plane into a Pennsylvania field. The barricading of cockpit doors shortly after 9/11 ended the possibility of a repeat of 9/11. Yet we continue to fund a massively expensive system to search all people boarding airplanes in a long-running exercise in “security theater” that accomplishes nothing.
4. Track the effectiveness.
Speaking of the TSA leads directly into a final way of minimizing the excesses and wastefulness of a national surveillance state. Every policy and every agency needs to be reviewed for effectiveness over time. On its 10-year anniversary, the TSA was the subject of a withering report by Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.) and Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who noted that $56 billion invested in making flying safer after 9/11 had not increased safety by any appreciable measure.
At the same, TSA personnel increased by 400 percent while passenger volume had increased by less than 12 percent. More recently, in July, the GAO released a report documenting a 27 percent increase in TSA-employee misconduct between 2010 and 2012.
A variety of books over the past few years—including Moises Naim’s new The End of Power and Matt Welch’s and my The Declaration of Independents(2011)—document the way in which power and authority is leaching out of traditional centralized authorities such as governments, corporations, and churches. This result is a change in the relationship between state and citizen, producer and consumer, priest and congregant. What was once a far more hierarchical, top-down, and force-fed relationship is much flatter and more voluntary. Companies must do more than ever to placate their workers and customers, and even the Catholic Church can no longer issue doctrine without regard for the reaction of believers.
Governments, of course, maintain more power but even they rest ultimately upon the consent of the governed. At least since the attacks of September 11, 2001, our own government has used real and imaginary threats to engage in behavior that is not just increasingly being revealed to the public (thank you, Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers) but being reviled as noxious, misguided, and offensive to basic civil liberties and freedom. It’s little wonder then, that the president’s and Congress’ approval ratings are so low. Would that they would recognize us as partners in the war on terror rather than as potential combatants. They might just make our world a bit safer and be able to get on with their jobs of actually governing.
This article originally appeared at The Daily Beast on September 14, 2013. Read the original by clicking here.