It is often asserted or assumed that American traditions of open government and civil liberties place the United States at a disadvantage in confronting terrorism. But the opposite may be closer to the truth.
“In an open society like ours… it is impossible to protect against every threat,” said President Bush in an August 24, 2005 speech. “That’s a fact we have to deal with. In a free society it is impossible to protect against every possible threat,” implying that it might be possible in a closed or unfree society.
Similarly, according to February 15 testimony (pdf) by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “terrorists and criminals… would exploit our open society to do us harm.”
And “precious little can be done to prevent [terrorist attacks on soft targets] in a society like ours that rightly values personal liberty so highly,” wrote Clark Kent Ervin, former Homeland Security Inspector General, in a Washington Post opinion piece on May 7.
But a distinctly different perspective was offered by John C. Gannon, former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.
Among the reasons that there has not been another terrorist attack on U.S. soil since September 11, he proposed, are precisely the openness and freedom that some others view with anxiety.
“I believe that the hard-won Constitutional freedoms enjoyed by Americans, along with our unparalleled commitment to civil liberties embedded in law, work against the development of domestic terrorist networks that could be exploited by foreigners,” testified Gannon, who is now a Vice President at BAE Systems Information Technology.
Secrecy News asked Dr. Gannon to elaborate on this point.
“Americans have unparalleled Constitutional and legal protections to express grievances and to openly criticize government at all levels,” he replied in a May 6 email message.
“This doesn’t mean that terrorists wouldn’t try to operate here. It means that the terrorists or other extremists would find less fertile ground to build networks in the US because local support would be harder to come by and because local opposition would be more certain.”
“In this sense, our liberties are a powerful antidote to violent extremism.”
“This is not an academic point for me. It is an observation from a career of watching the domestic consequences of repressive regimes elsewhere in the world–including US-friendly Islamic governments such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” Gannon wrote.
The question of whether openness and civil liberties tend to enhance national security or to undermine it is not a theoretical one. Much depends on which one of the two perspectives prevails.
If openness and the rule of law are sources of vulnerability, or viewed as such, then they will be quickly surrendered in the name of security. Torture may be redefined to permit non-lethal abuses, habeas corpus may be suspended, statutes regulating domestic surveillance may be disregarded.
Conversely, if civil liberties and the rule of law are a source of strength, it follows that they should be bolstered and scrupulously upheld even in the conduct of vital security operations.
Secrecy News asked Dr. Gannon whether his views on civil liberties could be reconciled with intelligence programs such as warrantless domestic surveillance.
“The NSA warrantless surveillance program–the details of which are mired in secrecy–should not be seen as a tradeoff between security and civil liberties. But, for this to be true, the program must be bound by law and subject to both judicial review and competent Congressional oversight–the latter now in short supply,” he explained.
“I believe our democracy has the instruments to advance security and protect civil liberties at the same time,” he said.