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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

05 February 2006

Electronic surveillance & the war on terror

Alberto Gonzalez, the US Attorney General, has an article in today’s Wall Street Journal to defend the president’s authority to monitor communications that occur between terrorist suspects in America and terrorist suspects abroad. Mr. Gonzalez’s justification rests on the Congress’ resolution after September 11, 2001, authorizing the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against those “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines” responsible for the attacks.

Leave aside the legal technicalities, and I see two issues that will, sooner or later, have to be confronted: the first is how will free societies balance civil liberties and security? The problem is particularly acute in cases where the curtailing of civil liberties is obscure and when the benefits to security are unspecified. Mr. Gonzalez quotes the president as saying, “the terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks.” This is may be true, but it avoids the more important question of how much surveillance is needed for how much security. I am not sure there is a clear answer to this question, but it is one we will have to consider at some point.

The second major issue has to do with the nature of the war on terror. That Mr. Gonzalez derives a multiplicity of executive prerogatives from the Congress’ resolution is no surprise. The big lesson of September 11, after all, was that terrorism is not a law-enforcement issue but a political / military problem. There is no doubt that the former conception, where the lawyers were the prime agents, was inadequate. But as this struggle will likely continue going for years, and with little hope for a definitive terror-free conclusion, it may be worth asking at some point whether our view of terror will need to synthesize the two—law enforcement and military—rather than continue to pretend as if this is a never-ending war which requires all sorts of executive privileges to wage it. That the former view of terror is wrong does not necessarily mean that our current view is right. And this is something we should be talking about.

References:
Alberto R. Gonzalez, “America expects surveillance,” Wall Street Journal, 6 Feb 06

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