The Dangerous, False Trade-Off Between Liberty and Security

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The NYPD's program of spying on Muslim Americans was excused as necessary for safety -- but it turns out it hasn't generated a single lead.



Earlier this summer, Julian Sanchez published an eye-opening argument about liberty and national security. Conventional wisdom suggests that federal officials ought to strike the right balance between these goods, taking care to optimize the difficult tradeoffs that are inevitably involved, he wrote. But that frame, pervasive in American politics and media, begs a very big question. "Has there been a trade-off?" he asked. "Have all the billions of dollars and intrusive new surveillance powers granted our intelligence agencies in recent years actually made us any safer?"

"There are, of course, some efforts that have made us safer. Sometimes we face hard questions about the trade-off between liberty and security," Sanchez went on to acknowledge. "But we shouldn't even begin to consider which trade-offs are worth making until we've seen some solid evidence that the trade-off is real. For most 'war on terror' measures, the evidence just isn't there."

I nodded along to that argument. It was plausibly true, at least in theory, and I filed it away, intending to hunt around to see if I could find some strong example of it proving true in practice as well. Guess who beat me to the punch?

In a new item, Julian Sanchez directs our attention to an Associated Press story on the NYPD's spying program. For the uninitiated, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's police force went around surveying innocent Muslim Americans, blatantly engaging in ethnic profiling and operating in jurisdictions beyond New York City. A conventional way opponents might react to this program is to say that it makes an unacceptable tradeoff between security and the civil liberties of a minority group.

But wait a minute. Says the AP (emphasis added):

In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department's secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged in court testimony unsealed late Monday. The Demographics Unit is at the heart of a police spying program, built with help from the CIA, which assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued every Muslim in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames.

Police hoped the Demographics Unit would serve as an early warning system for terrorism. And if police ever got a tip about, say, an Afghan terrorist in the city, they'd know where he was likely to rent a room, buy groceries and watch sports. But in a June 28 deposition as part of a longstanding federal civil rights case, Assistant Chief Thomas Galati said none of the conversations the officers overheard ever led to a case.

In other words, there was no tradeoff between liberty and security. There was just a loss of liberty.

Or as Sanchez put it, "This is a reminder of how misleading it can be to discuss these topics under the rubric of 'balancing liberty and security.' If government surveillance performs as advertised and yields a substantial security benefit, there's a debate to be had over how much government intrusion we're prepared to countenance as the price of that security. But that security benefit has to be proven, not assumed." To go a step farther, the NYPD program's assumption of a tradeoff seems to have had an even more perverse consequence -- civil liberties were violated, and as a result Americans were made less safe, insofar as the program squandered significant, scarce terrorist-finding resources without actually uncovering any plots or terrorists.

It never even generated a lead.

Despite that, contemporaneous press reports, like one I'm about to quote from The New York Daily News, often contained sentences like the following, which stated that the Associated Press' revelation of the spying "revived the debate over the delicate balance between security and personal liberty, and renewed questions about how far the cops should reach to protect the city."

See how dangerous and misleading that frame can be when it is groundlessly presumed to apply?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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