What would you be willing to give up in exchange for more security?
We've touched on that question a couple of times here at the People's Weekly Brief. It's a topic that generates impressively emotional responses.
On one end of the spectrum is seething indignation at the thought of losing basic rights and liberties that are at the core of our country's foundation.
On the other is the conviction of those who believe that the issue is more about preventing another 9/11 than it is about the possible eroding of civil liberties and personal freedoms.
Those in the first camp battle the fear of an over-stepping local, state and federal government, and cry foul over every government action taken to monitor potential threats.
And those siding with the other way of thinking grapple with the possibility that political correctness and an irrational concern for those freedoms will leave the United States open to future attacks and believe increased security requires certain compromises.
Both sides are convinced that their fears and concerns are absolutely warranted, and each throws dirt and criticism at the other like so many monkeys flinging poo.
The problem — perhaps the eventual solution — is that both arguments are correct to a certain degree. However, as with much of our discourse, we tend to dumb the issue down to an “us-versus-them” polarizing debate.
At what point exactly did we lose the ability to calmly consider the opposite point of view? I'm not saying we all need to hold hands, light up a patchouli stick and break out the Hacky Sack, but what's wrong with taking the time to listen to differing opinions?
Don't get me wrong — there are a lot of people walking this planet whom I disagree with. And though listening, considering the value of differing opinions and understanding what the other side is saying takes time and requires some use of the brainpan, the process is generally painless.
By the way, nothing I'm saying here should be considered rocket science. I am not a deep thinker. I'm more a statement-of-the-obvious kind of guy.
The reason for my ranting on this subject is simple: I hit overload last night flipping from news channel to news channel watching pundits yapping at each other on a variety of critical issues. No one had the chance to answer a question without being interrupted by some other pundit barking something stupid and inflammatory.
You all know what I'm talking about. The program starts out with an important topic — “World Peace: Good Idea or Outdated Concept?” — then descends into chaos as the experts, opinion makers and screamers strip down to their knickers, climb into the iron cage and face off in yet another battle of the morons.
The televised pundit battle that finally did me in last night, causing me to scrap my previously written column and launch into this tirade, was a roundtable of folks discussing the story, just now breaking in the national news, that the New York Police Department's Intelligence Unit carried out surveillance on a variety of persons and organizations during the year leading up to the Republican National Convention (RNC) in 2004.
The most surprising part of this story is how a surprising number of people seem surprised that this sort of surveillance effort would be undertaken.
Anyway, back to the pundit throwdown. In one corner, we had a couple of people who were almost to the point of tears over the idea that the NYPD would do anything to prepare for the onslaught of crowds, activities, events and possible demonstrations prior to the GOP Convention.
In the other, we had a person who was completely disdainful of those concerns and worried that the NYPD hadn't gone far enough to suppress the protesters and potential troublemakers.
No one took the middle ground.
Though both sides said their overriding concern was for the safety and stability of America, neither had any interest in listening to the other. Apparently, from what I could gather, whoever shouted the loudest and with the least grounding in reality scored points, possibly to be redeemed at the end of the show for valuable prizes.
But I don't know what happened at the end of the show, because I had to switch it off after five minutes to keep my eyes and ears from bleeding.
If you haven't been following the debate over civil liberties vs. security at the Republican National Convention, let's recap:
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD decided it needed to develop a home-grown intelligence capability, partly out of concern about the deficiencies in the development and sharing of information among local, state and federal authorities.
Perhaps, at this stage, those representing both ends of the argument could at least try to understand how the NYPD got on this logic train.
After 9/11, there was a firestorm of criticism over the inability of the various agencies to play well with each other. The local and state authorities determined that one part of the solution was to develop a ground-up capability for intelligence, which would allow them to gather information using local resources, knowledge and capabilities, and would also allow for the intelligence flow to hopefully go both ways — i.e. from the federal level down, and also from the local level up. Makes sense.
As deputy commissioner for intelligence, former senior CIA official Dave Cohen is responsible for the NYPD's intelligence operation. I am acquainted with Mr. Cohen and can confirm that he is a very smart, dedicated professional who is not interested in monitoring the activities of each and every citizen of New York City. He has no designs on taking over the metropolis and bears no resemblance to Lex Luthor or any other evildoer out to manipulate society. His remit is to use the intelligence process to identify, prevent and/or minimize risks to NYC.
In February 2003, New York City was chosen as the site for the 2004 Republican National Convention. This would be approximately a year-and-a-half after the Twin Towers came down, so authorities were naturally worried about possible security concerns as a result of the expected crowds.
As part of the intelligence process, the determination was made to catalogue and gain a better understanding of the potential threats. This was accomplished by fairly standard means of intel gathering: database and internet research, along with surveillance and undercover operations focused on whatever organizations appeared to be of possible concern.
Now, all this was happening against a backdrop of several decades of legal wrangling over the appropriate use of police surveillance and intelligence gathering against domestic political organizations and various activist groups with a wide ranging list of agendas, mostly peaceful, some occasionally less so.
The 1960s spawned a slew of class-action lawsuits as a result of police monitoring of activist groups, civil rights leaders and antiwar organizations. The same decade also spawned some pretty excellent music. But I digress.
In NYC, the limits imposed on police for such monitoring and surveillance are referred to as the Handschu guidelines. In 2003, through the judicial process, the parameters for police surveillance were expanded, although still under the Handschu guidelines and still with an oversight system.
Okeedokee ... this is where it all goes a bit skeewampus (technical term meaning FUBAR).
The collection of intelligence leading up to the '04 RNC cast a wide net in an effort to figure out where the possible threats may come from. The NYPD was primarily focused on the terror threat, but its responsibility also covered public safety and the need to ensure order during a massive multi-day event that would undoubtedly attract loads of folks with differing opinions. There was reasonable concern that any major disruption or chaos caused by legitimate organizations or activist groups could be unwittingly used by more threatening elements.
What happens during a large intelligence collection exercise? Well, you tend to gather loads of information — lots of bits and pieces, some meaningful, some not — but it all needs to be accounted for, cross-checked, analyzed and correlated with all the other information being gathered by all the various people, agencies and departments involved in the event and the broader homeland defense arena. If you don't keep track of the information you're gathering, you might as well as not bother.
Then, when something bad happens, your organization can get a boot up the backside from the public, the media and the politicians for not having done enough. It's a somewhat thankless job.
The NYPD spent the year leading up to the RNC identifying all the various players that could be expected at the event and then gathering what it could on their intentions and plans. This ranged from one-page reports on groups that clearly had no threat potential and were not ultimately monitored to surveillance over many months of organizations that were deemed “of concern."
As any reasonable person would expect, the list of persons, groups and organizations that ended up being looked at either a little or a lot was fairly extensive. Many of the groups were clearly not a threat, but they ended up in a file somewhere because someone made a note, wrote a paragraph or filed a memo on his or her research.
Did all the individual people or groups deserve to be part of the intelligence collection effort? No. Did the police undercover operations include some groups that, in hindsight, posed no threat? Likely. Is it remotely possible that even the most liberal person could at least understand the point of the NYPD's collection effort? That's probably hoping for too much.
From the NYPD's point of view, it was acting in the public's interest to try and ensure their security.
From the view of the activists, civil liberties lawyers and liberal sympathizers, the NYPD was overreacting, breaching the Handschu guidelines and encroaching on the rights of citizens to engage in freedom of speech.
Here we return to my earlier rant: Both sides are fundamentally correct, but neither has any inclination to find common ground. It's easier to sling mud at the opponent than to sit down and figure out how we can resolve this sort of fundamental issue.
Perhaps the NYPD intelligence collection effort will force some better, more intelligent dialogue.
The war on terror isn't going away anytime soon. Like it or not, our enemies do believe they are engaged in a war with us. We can ignore that fact, but it doesn't lessen the threat.
At the same time, we will continue to face the question of what compromises are appropriate when our security is at stake.
That's just my opinion. Let me know yours. Send your comments and thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay safe, and I'll see you next week.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, and appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker also serves as a script consultant and advisor within the entertainment industry, lending his technical expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," and the major motion pictures "Proof of Life" and "Spy Games."