Commentary

Secrecy Fetish Hurts Terror War

This article appeared in the Orange County Register, February 17, 2006.
The Bush administration’s arguments supporting the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program all rely on a certain premise.

Administration spokespeople raise it when they talk about the “danger that lurks” and the “war” in which we are engaged. Their premise: the ongoing risk of a domestic terrorist attack.

Excessive secrecy prevents the administration from supporting its case. Listening to the president and his spokespeople, what have we learned about the risk of a terrorist attack? What is the likelihood of an attack and what would be its consequence? In all the ominous talk, there is not much information.

We can compare the risk of a terrorist attack to other dangers our country has historically faced: During the height of the Cold War, we drew within a few figurative minutes of midnight — the moment that the Soviet Union and United States would hurl their world-ending arsenals at one another. The policy we relied on to protect ourselves was the ability to strike back after our cities were decimated and our people dead or violently ill: Mutual Assured Destruction.

Only extreme revisionism would support the claim that our nuclear doctrine then seemed stable or that the times were tranquil. American children grew up … well, terrorized at the thought that they and their families might die with only a few minutes warning.

But we didn’t throw out the rulebook during the Cold War. The executive branch did not make extravagant claims to power. What excesses there were — McCarthyism, unwarranted surveillance and attempts to undermine law-abiding pressure groups — were reined in even while nuclear annihilation loomed.

How does the risk from terrorism now stack up against the risk of nuclear war? New York Times reporter James Risen contends that al Qaeda has been reduced to conventional methods of attack, like the bombings we saw in London and Madrid. Such attacks are nothing we should desire but combined they killed fewer people than might die in car accidents over a long weekend in the United States.

In Black Hole: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, security historian Timothy, Naftali writes, “The American public should be informed that the terrorists cannot win any war against the United States.” A side effect of government secrecy, of course, is that outside analysts can make such statements with only so much confidence. Any accurate new information could change the risk calculus.

This would be welcome. The administration should give us more information with which to assess the risk we face, not just sketchy details of plots hatched and foiled several years ago. The policy of withholding information — even to protect sources and methods — creates far more ills than it cures.

During the Cold War, secrecy was the modus operandi of our intelligence services. Unchallenged by outside scholarship, criticism, or debate, they got their judgments about the Soviet Union’s economic strength and military preparedness smashingly wrong.

Dozens of dangers to Americans’ life and health come before terrorism. For the average American, the chance of dying in a terrorist attack is essentially nil. Yet many Americans speak of “the terrorists” as if they are among us in every mall and on every plane. Some blame for the ongoing fear goes to the unfortunate rhetoric used to defend the NSA’s domestic surveillance program.

There is no doubt that the Bush administration is committed to fighting terrorists. And fair minded people do not doubt the good faith or intentions of the White House. But domestically, at least, terrorism is not so much the locus of a “war” as a challenging, but soluble, security dilemma.

The scope of executive power, the meaning of the Authorization for Use of Military Force, and the Fourth Amendment reasonableness, of surveillance without a warrant all turn on the administration’s premise that we are in a war on terror. Releasing information about the risk of attack would allow Congress and the American people to weigh these arguments intelligently and perhaps even participate in the protection of their country.

Yet the Bush administration holds out secrecy as the cardinal virtue in anti-terrorism efforts. It cannot maintain credible arguments for broad executive power while withholding information about the current risk of a terrorist attack here.

Jim Harper is the director of information policy studies, focuses on the difficult problems of adapting law and policy to the unique problems of the information age.