Last week, PBS’s Frontline aired a program about security, surveillance and civil liberties — including privacy — in the United States: “Are We Safer?” You can view the full program here. The author of the segment, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, investigates the sprawling terrorism-industrial complex that has grown up in the wake of 9/11. The day after the show aired, Priest had a live chat at WashingtonPost.com. Here’s an excerpt. Read the full discussion here.
Q. INTELLIGENCE GATHERING AND POLITICAL DISCOURSE
As a 20-something political activist, the most chilling part of your report to me is the section that shows that peace activists were mistaken for terrorists according to these intelligence agencies. I am so proud to live in a country where everyone can directly participate in public discourse, but in post 9/11 America I am becoming increasingly afraid that my peaceful expressions of dissent are being lumped into the same category of danger as violent extremism. In Top Secret America, what does the future hold for the next generation? Will I have to keep looking over my shoulder for cameras when I legally express my opinion?
A. DANA PRIEST:
Well, the point about publishing information like the Frontline series and Top Secret America is to at least enhance public awareness, which might enhance the discussion about how to best proceed…there are obvious trade-offs that everyone should be aware of…privacy versus collecting some potential bits of valuable information. Everytime some local abuse has come to light, though, its been fixed and the people involved have learned valuable lessons. […]
Q. HOMELAND SECURITY
How far are we away from, let’s say, a the subject of a traffic stop in Sacramento, Calif., entered in the police computer and that information popping up on a computer screen at the CIA or some other agency?
A. DANA PRIEST:
Can’t pop up on a CIA computer, so let’s be clear about that. Unless Executive Order 12333 gets changed, I don’t think you’ll ever see that kind of rapid sharing of local police information with the intelligence agency. Now “other agencies” is a different story…if the person were “of interest”, maybe because there was a full-fledged terrorism case being pursued by the FBI, then I think it would pop up on the police officers’ handheld right away…if it was something less than that, I’m not sure but I think there might be some instruction to phone the stop into the local Joint Terrorism Task Force or DHS right away, or to the local fusion center. I can see that added phone call being eliminated sometime in the near future, yes. […]
Q. EXCESSIVE CAUTION
It seems to me that part of the problem is that there is absolutely no incentive for decision makers to consider the costs (financial and other) of anti-terrorism measures. If a new security measure is proposed, whatever the cost in time, money, convenience, or civil liberties, the people who decide whether it should be implemented will inevitably conclude that the safest route is to do everything. Because if they don’t and a terrorist attack happened (however unlikely), there would be hell to pay. In other realms of life we think rationally about costs versus benefits. After all, fewer people would die on the highway if the speed limit were 15 mph, yet we aren’t willing to pay that price, even though it means that people die. How can the decision-making process with regard to anti-terrorism measures be rationalized?
A. DANA PRIEST:
I absolutely agree with you. The flip side of the “any spending goes” mentality is “panic” about the destructive power of terrorists. If one applies a cost-benefit analysis, spending would be much different. We aren’t there yet, and may decide never to be for whatever reason. I see it starting to happen as the federal budget tightens. It will be interesting to watch the state governors and how they manage the trade-offs in tough economic times. Will some fusion centers close or shrink? I suspect so, given the dire straits of some states..