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NSA’s surveillance programme : The tools are in place now

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However, the disclosure that the U.S. intelligence agencies are sweeping up and storing everything about every American’s personal communications—this is what astonishes the vast majority of citizens, even those who generally tolerate surveillance and disapprove of Edward Snowden.

Here is the big concern they quite properly sense: These powerful surveillance networks, if placed in the hands of an authoritarian president, could easily enable a system of controls that Stasi’s bureaucrats or Stalin’s commisars would have envied.

„The tools are in place now“

Shortly after the stories about Snowden’s leaks hit the front pages this month, I talked with Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corporation. Jenkins is a prominent terrorism expert, a pioneer in the field. He compiled the first database of international terrorists back in 1971, and wrote one of the first monographs on the subject back in 1974. He has served as a consultant to several presidential commissions on the terrorist threat; some of his proposals have been codified into policy.

As Jenkins put it to me, “I’m not squeamish, I don’t wring my hands over what has to be done” to track down terrorists. And yet, he thinks that U.S. policies have gone too far. “What we have put in place,” he said, “is the foundation of a very oppressive state.” Some future president who wanted to move in that direction—either as a personal inclination or in response to a new spate of terrorist strikes—could do so right away. “The tools are in place now,” Jenkins said.

The most worrisome thing

Or, more worrisome still, the steps toward tyranny could be taken incrementally, almost imperceptibly. Jenkins regards each element of the surveillance system as reasonable. The problem is that, once in place, these elements tend to stay in place. “What now seems extraordinary,” he said, “is soon accepted as normal, and becomes the baseline for the future.” (For instance, street cameras were once decried as invasions of privacy. Now, very few Americans have any problem with them, especially after they were crucial in helping police spot and identify the Boston Marathon bombers.)  “Over a period of time,” Jenkins says, “the baseline shifts, and these new intrusions accumulate and reinforce one another. And that fundamentally changes things.”

Ironically, Americans have put up so little resistance to these accumulations, in part because they have experienced so little terrorism. There have been 42 terrorist plots in the United States in the dozen years since the attack on the World Trade Center. All but four of these plots were derailed. Three of those four succeeded to some extent, killing a total of 17 people. That’s tragic, but tiny compared with 14,000 homicides in the United States just last year (and that was the smallest number of murders here since the early 1960s).

The most worrisome thing about terrorism to Americans is less what has happened than what might happen. As long as that is the case, the accumulation of intrusions, as Jenkins puts it, will probably never let up—especially if it’s believed (rightly or wrongly) that these intrusions, as invisible as they are pervasive, might reduce, even by a little bit, the chance of a terrorist attack.

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