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after paris
The Liberty-Security Pendulum Will Swing

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Paris massacre will reopen debates about security and surveillance—which, since the Snowden revelations and related events, appeared to be breaking in favor of privacy advocates—in a big way. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton said yesterday that encryption technology was likely “a significant factor” in the attacks, and this morning took a shot at Silicon Valley software manufacturers, who he said are “working against us” by failing to create back doors for law enforcement to monitor suspected terrorists’ communications. CIA Director John Brennan made similar comments at a CSIS forum this morning, according to Foreign Policy‘s John Hudson. “When asked why #Paris happened, CIA Director Brennan says privacy advocates have undermined the ability of spies to monitor terrorists”, Hudson tweeted.

In the coming days and weeks, we can expect intelligence officials to spar with civil libertarians over the extent to which the new privacy measures prompted by the Snowden revelations—like end-to-end data encryption software—are responsible for the attacks. But however that debate plays out, it seems safe to say that the slaughter in the City of Lights will at least dent the celebrity of Snowden and other privacy advocates like him, and make his admirers’ dire warnings about the existential threat to liberty posed by the NSA seem overblown.

In periods of relative safety, Americans tend to be sympathetic to the Jeffersonian tradition—that is, zealously protective of their civil liberties and alert to the danger of creeping federal tyranny. But in periods of perceived danger, the Jacksonian impulse to get the bad guys at all costs grows more powerful.

Since the Snowden leaks, America has been enjoying a Jeffersonian moment—skeptical of foreign interventions, and especially conscious of potential threats to liberty at home, like NSA snooping and militarized police forces. This moment may have already on its way out in the last year, as evidenced by Sen. Rand Paul’s decline in popularity and influence. But after Paris, it certainly is. We are once again in a period of perceived danger, for the Paris attacks, perhaps more than any other event in the last decade, highlight that the West is still at war with a vicious enemy. To many Americans, government spies and cops with big guns might no longer seem like the greatest threat to American liberty, but rather a necessary if unpleasant precaution against those who would destroy it entirely.

As these debates reopen, hard-core Jeffersonians and Jacksonians alike will insist that any deviation from their preferred position will lead to either tyranny or chaos. But it is important to remember that America has a 300 year tradition of balancing civil liberties, government power, and security through a mix of legislation, judicial oversight, and public debate. While our system isn’t perfect, we have mostly reached compromises that accommodate both of these deeply American political traditions relatively well. Post-Paris, the terms of the debate have changed, but that capacity for balancing opposing values likely has not.

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  • Jim__L

    A blank check is inappropriate, as is doing nothing.

    Judicial oversight is for the best here — watching the watchmen and all that.

    Coming down hard on people who would use government powers for partisan ends is also appropriate. Letting Lois Lerner off was a grave mistake, and severely detrimental to the trust necessary to allow our country to be effective in dealing with outside threats like this.

  • Andrew Allison

    The events in Paris should not be allowed to further broaden the powers of the surveillance state. Bratton and Brennan are attempting to take advantage of the attack to further extend already intrusive surveillance. Brennan’s comment that privacy advocates have undermined the ability of spies to monitor terrorists, in particular, is ridiculous on its face. First, the CIA has no business in domestic affairs, and second, there’s been no significant reduction in spying on Americans.

  • Nevis07

    Blaming encryption technology seems a bit lazy to me. Before we start reducing American citizen’s rights to privacy, let’s first talk about the government’s responsibility (and especially the President, as it’s his first responsibility) to do their job and protect citizens – that means not taking in tens of thousands of high-risk refugees who hail from locations.

    A very effective way to destroy a society and culture’s norms and laws is to simply import and entirely different and incompatible culture.

    • Andrew Allison

      A bit lazy? It’s opportunism, pure and simple.

      • Nevis07

        yes, it seems like it…

      • Evan Seitchik

        Yes, well put. It’s extremely disappointing to see this from the CIA. These so-called “back doors for law enforcement” dramatically weaken encryption in general and are just as likely to admit Chinese hackers as FBI agents with a warrant. I’m most disturbed by the threat it poses to individual liberty, but we should take seriously the potential effects on American businesses, and not just technology businesses, if they can’t keep their trade secrets safe.

    • circleglider


      French intelligence authorities enjoy unfettered access to their citizens’ communications that America’s spy agencies could only dream about. Yet it did nothing to prevent the Paris attacks.

  • jeburke

    It bears repeating ad nauseam that this phenomenon of global terrorism was and is made possible by internet-powered communications.Thus, counter-intelligence agencies need tools to track and intercept these communications. It’s ridiculous to assume that rules about interception technology that were made to apply basically to phone calls in the mid-1970s are adequate to this task.

    • circleglider

      [G]lobal terrorism was and is made possible by Internet-powered communications.

      If any modern technology could be said to facilitate terrorism, it’s air travel. Or small arms.Terrorism has been around for centuries. Blaming communications technology for terrorism represents the height of ignorance combined with reflexive authoritarianism — which are also unsurprisingly the defining characteristics of Donald Trump’s supporters.

      • jeburke

        Groups like al Qaeda could not have operated globally — sending hundreds of operatives thousands of miles while coordinating their activities — was not possible in the absence of the scores of internet platforms that became available beginning in the late 90s. And in fact, they did exploit these platforms. Earlier, such groups could operate locally and occasionally send someone abroad but their reach was far more limited. Subsequently, internet communications have become an invaluable and powerful tool of global recruitment and propaganda. Pre-internet, a group like ISIS could not possibly have “radicalized” young men across the world. How? By mailing them magazines? Sending speakers?

        These are just blazingly obvious facts. You would do yourself a favor and not make yourself a fool by posting coherent comments here instead of personal taunts and baseless accusations.

  • qet

    Surveillance is only a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the danger to liberty. The other necessary condition is regime of near-countless laws, rules and regulations in which every individual is guilty of committing, as Harvey Silverglate put it with only mild hyperbole, three felonies a day. Just because a surveilled person is not engaged in terrorist activities does not mean he is not engaged in something that some administrative agency or law enforcement department somewhere won’t find highly prosecutable, or useful in a prosecution, should one of the bureaucrats, police officers, FBI Agents, Assistant US Attorneys etc. decide, for reasons wholly unrelated to “maintaing law and order” or “keeping the peace” (see, e.g., Lois Lerner, and the John Doe investigations in WI), that it is in his personal or career interest to prosecute. We live in such a regime today, of course, making the increased and more intense surveillance more dangerous than it appears when viewed solely by itself or in combination only with fighting the jihadis.

    • Jim__L

      Combine enhanced surveillance with Politically Correct thought policing, and you’ve got 1984.

  • Fat_Man

    The first thing the intelligence agencies* need to do is to prove that we have gotten some benefit from the amount of resources we have spent on them. I am far from convinced that they have done anything, let alone paid for their supper.

    *I think the phrase may be an oxymoron.

    • Andrew Allison

      IMNHO there’s no doubt that we’ve received the same benefit from investing in intelligence agencies (an oxymoron for sure) as from the ridiculously costly and utterly ineffective Department of Homeland Security, with TSA being a monument to waste and inefficiency.

      • Fat_Man

        Not being worse than TSA is not an excuse.

  • Nathan F

    1. How do we know that they communicated via this technology? Maybe it was missed because they communicated via the old fashioned way — not digitally. They have to know that their communications are being monitored.
    2. Surely – they are not stupid. If they weren’t communicating via old fashioned face to face or snail mail before, if there are huge changes in the surveillance law, they will adapt too.

    Point is — we shouldn’t put too much weight on the idea that digital surveillance could stop this.

  • Tom_Tildrum

    Once again, the intelligence-gathering process wholly failed to produce any useful information relating to this catastrophe, and once again, the intelligence community is trying to slough off the blame for its failure onto others.

  • Fat_Man

    “After Endless Demonization Of Encryption, Police Find Paris Attackers Coordinated Via Unencrypted SMS”

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