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Liberty Vs. Safety: A False Choice

Why respecting rights and operating accountably makes security agencies more effective.

January 6, 2014

Credit: Bikeworldtravel -

Edward Snowden’s revelations about massive, indiscriminate electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency breathed new life into the debate raging since September 11, 2001: how much liberty are Americans willing to give up today to ensure their security?

It is, we’re told, a self-evident tradeoff. The NSA is keeping us safe by nipping terrorist attacks in the bud. In order to do so effectively, security agencies have no choice but infringe on the privacy of American citizens and violate some of their Constitutional rights.

For telling us about the spying programs – and thus purportedly jeopardizing our safety – Snowden may be facing 30 years in prison, if he ever returns to the United States.

It is a stark choice, of a life-and-death situation, we’re told. Faced with this choice, most Americans prefer not to die, even if it means having to live with our freedoms curtailed. Hopefully, not by a lot – but we’ll have to rely on the security services to make this decision. Nor will ever we know by how much exactly – unless someone like Snowden breaks the law to reveal it.

False choice

We’ve come to trust our security services in matters of our security so completely that we don’t even realize that the tradeoff between freedom and safety is completely false.

If it weren’t false, then Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries where men have the least freedom would be the most secure. They would be followed by Russia, Belarus, Egypt, Venezuela and the likes.

The reality is quite different, of course. Democracy indices are notoriously unreliable, but based on a broad one from the Economist Intelligence Unit, the world’s freest nations are clustered in Northern and Western Europe, North America and portions of the Asia-Pacific region. In those countries people also enjoy the highest level of security from foreign, domestic or state terrorism.

It’s no coincidence. In general, democracy and openness, allowing people to air their grievances freely and to participate in the building of their communities, is by far the best – and probably the only – way to lastingly defeat terrorism.

The American War on Terror has gone on for over a decade, and thousands of terrorists have been killed or arrested around the world. But the list of terrorist organizations maintained by the State Department continues to grow, with only nine – including the Khmer Rouge and the Japanese Red Army – ever delisted. The number of terrorists around the world has actually increased.

Accountability is security

There is also a clear and convincing practical explanation why openness offers more security. Like all other government institutions, security services tend to be more efficient and professional when they are accountable to the public and when the results of their work, including successes as well as failures, are out in the open.

Respect for the public opinion and for the rights of all members of society lead to greater security, whereas shadowy activities by security apparatuses breed incompetence and failure.

Since 2001, the American public has been treated to assertions by security agencies that dozens of terrorist attacks have been thwarted. Of course, details of those attacks supposedly had to be kept top secret in order to safeguard ongoing operations.

But of those plots that have been disclosed in recent years, with law enforcement agencies patting themselves vigorously on the back, most had largely been masterminded by those agencies themselves. One example was the seven members of a bizarre Florida religious cult, to whom an FBI agent gave an idea to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Meanwhile, the shoe bomber Richard Reid, the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and a number of others failed in their deadly plots by sheer luck or their own immense incompetence, without NSA, FBI or others having the slightest idea about any of them.

Similarly, the Tsarnaev brothers, who bombed the Boston Marathon last April, evaded the security dragnet. By the Washington Post’s count, this means that none of the 1,271 government organizations around the country involved in “counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence” activities caught on, even with (or perhaps because of) their extensive data collection.

Unprofessional agencies

According to data leaked by Snowden, many people involved in spying on Americans to ferret out terrorists actually eavesdropped on their love interests and former lovers. Thus, the atmosphere of secrecy and lack of transparency in which security agencies like to operate is quite dangerous.

Most immediately, this undermines the professionalism and utility of the security agencies themselves. No one ever knows when they screw up or overstep the boundaries of the law. It’s an environment in which mistakes and failures go unpunished.

The result can very well be more terrorist attacks in the future – and that is, believe it or not, the best outcome. Operating in the shadows, security forces become a state within a state, with their own interests and agendas that may differ from those of the citizens who pay their salaries.

In order to get larger budgets and operate with less control, security services might want to exaggerate terrorist threats. They may allow terrorist attacks to go forward if that serves their purpose, and even go as far as to stage them outright if no suitable terrorists are available. Working out of the public eye, they may use their secret jobs for personal gain.

The KGB state

If this sounds far–fetched, you only need to look at Russia to see a cautionary example. Russia is run by a former lieutenant colonel of the KGB who has promoted his former cronies in the security services to positions of economic and political power.

They run the government, harass private businesses and manage state–owned resource companies mainly to enrich themselves and other officers in State Security.

It is basically a mafia state of former spooks, who never tire of telling ordinary Russians that they may not have any political or economic rights, but at least they are safe. And yet murky terrorist attacks go on in Russia with increasing frequency.

An effective security service for the United States requires more transparency and accountability, not less.


“How much liberty are Americans willing to give up today to ensure their security?” is the wrong question.

We trust our security services so completely that we don’t even realize that the freedom/safety tradeoff is false.

Allowing people to air grievances freely and to participate in community-building is the way to defeat terrorism.

Like all institutions, security services are more efficient when the results of their work are out in the open.

Operating in the shadows, security forces become a state within a state, with their own interests and agendas.

In order to get larger budgets and operate with less control, security services might exaggerate terrorist threats.

You only need to look at Russia to see a cautionary example of an opaque security service run amok.