Freedom and Security
As Americans, we live in a country built upon such a strong commitment to freedom that we have preserved mottoes such as "Live free or die" and "Give me liberty or give me death" since the Revolutionary War. Freedom is such a precious gift that our founding fathers, and countless others in subsequent years, have risked their lives rather than compromise their independence. Americans have always understood that with freedom comes uncertainty, while complete security always demands extensive compromise. Now the United States faces a new type of enemy, who fights in new ways and can only be stopped using new methods. It is possible to win the war against terrorism without many of the intrusive methods that our forefather feared, thanks to sensitive new technology with improved capacity for specificity. Nevertheless, it is essential that the American people and the American government find the correct balance between security measures and individual liberty, for while no freedom is possible if our nation is under assault or if our laws are undermined by hostile forces, perfect security is intolerable if our individual independence is dramatically curtailed.
1. The Patriot Act
Following 9/11, Congress passed the Patriot Act, a broad piece of legislation designed to help the American intelligence and law enforcement communities prevent further acts of violence. One of its primary purposes was to streamline communications and information sharing processes between intelligence and law enforcement agencies, which had been compartmentalized for many years. In an effort to protect the American people from the potentially intrusive techniques used in investigations of foreign targets, the federal government had imposed strict regulations upon the interaction between intelligence agencies, which usually focused abroad and acted offensively to prevent threats, and law enforcement agencies, which acted within the United States primarily to investigate crimes that had already been committed. After 9/11 proved that the United States was susceptible to a terrorist attack, a new approach was clearly needed that would blend the pro-active approach of intelligence with the commitment of law enforcement to safeguarding individual rights.
The Patriot Act attempted to bridge this gap. It legally empowered officials to apply the same methods already used in organized crime and drug cases to terrorism investigations. These methods include certain types of wiretaps, investigations into business and financial records, and delayed-notice searches, all of which are carried out only with specific approval by a court established for the explicit purpose of granting warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The Patriot Act also attempted to streamline investigations by eliminating restrictions upon the admissibility of evidence. In the past, information collected by surveillance authorized for intelligence gathering purposes could not be used in criminal prosecutions. This resulted in such tragedies as the failure to prosecute a diplomatic couple who had murdered their child in their home, because the event had been captured by surveillance devices installed to gather intelligence on other activities. Again, the Patriot Act did not radically expand the federal government's authority or dramatically curtail individual rights, but merely removed legal impediments to the effective investigation and prosecution of terrorist activity, while simultaneously establishing much higher penalties for terrorism than had previously existed.
Some Americans feel threatened by the Patriot Act. Their vigilance against unwarranted government intrusion into private behavior is important, for a United States without personal liberty is not a United States as we have ever known it. Some things are simply too important to compromise, even to improve our own safety. However, the Patriot Act does not represent an opportunity for intrusion into the private lives of most Americans, because the traditional requirements of judicially-approved warrants still apply. Instead, it is a means through which the American government can be proactive rather than reactive in the war against terror, helping to prevent attacks before they occur rather than only acting vigorously after Americans have been killed.
It is a widespread idea in the United States that the American intelligence services are all-knowing and all-powerful entities, with secret files on all citizens and access to all information. Of course, this is only a myth. While our intelligence agencies are extremely effective and successful, a number of high-profile missteps in recent years, such as our inability to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, our failure to prevent 9/11, and our repeated inability to capture Osama Bin Laden, should reassure the American people that their every action is not being watched. But even if American intelligence was capable of such inescapable omniscience, this capability could not be legally directed toward the American people.
A complex network of well-defined legislation exists specifically to protect the American people from the intrusions of intelligence and surveillance. Organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, as well as the military intelligence services, have no legal authorization to operate against American targets. Even their activities against foreign individuals and groups who may be operating in the United States are extremely restricted. Other agencies, such as the FBI, are specifically tasked with domestic operations, but even here they must abide by the explicit legislation designed to protect American freedoms.
Many Americans remember the COINTELPRO, or counterintelligence programs, of the FBI in the 1960's and 1970's, in which files were established on individuals or groups considered potentially subversive or dangerous. While most of these instances simply included the organization and retention of information and never even became actual investigations, they were eventually outlawed by Congress. Today, no investigation of an American person can be initiated or continued without authorization by the courts. Government agencies cannot even keep a file of public information on an individual without special authorization. While some Americans may consider this unnecessary red tape, this procedure exists to protect citizens from the state. Particularly under the Patriot Act, legal provisions do exist to allow investigations when they are considered worthwhile. But without the approval of a judge in the light of a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, Americans may safely trust that they will not be targeted by their government for surveillance or investigation.
3. Free Speech Issues
While "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt" me may be a reassuring way for a child to deal with a bully, as adults we know that words can be very powerful. In the war on terror, words can give comfort and inspiration to the enemy and can so shape public perception that they ultimately alter reality. If elected officials give statements that sound hopeless and discouraged, the terrorists may feel they are winning and fight even harder. If high-profile religious leaders make public pronouncements that undercut the administration's emphasis that this is not a war against Islam, this may insult Muslims throughout the world and make many more responsive to extremism. If major public advocacy groups or famous private citizens display hostility toward the American effort, this may suggest to our enemies that the United States is not united against this threat and therefore vulnerable to fatigue and disintegration.
On ]the other hand, none of these dangers outweigh the American commitment to free speech. All Americans have the right to speak their opinions from any available forum, but should understand the potential implications of those statements. The traditional insulation of geographic space no longer exists, as modern communication technology insures that words spoken in Kansas can be heard in Iraq. The right of free speech, therefore, should be exercised in tandem with the responsibilities of discretion and wisdom as Americans consider how their statements may be taken out of context and manipulated to cause harm. But the responsibility to exercise the right of free speech wisely is necessarily subjective in its interpretation, as each individual will weigh the benefits of their statement and the potential harm it may cause in a quite different manner. There is very rarely any way in which American citizens can be legally prohibited from making statements their neighbors consider detrimental to the national interest. As a result, the only means through which one American can counteract the words of another is through the further exercise of our free speech rights. If you believe that a particular message is harmful to our national effort or our national security, you may make your counterargument as loudly and as publicly as possible. Free speech is not just a tool to be used by America's enemies. It is also the sharpest weapon in the arsenal of American democracy and should be used accordingly.