More Surveillance, Poor Results

18:32 Tue 13 May 2008. Updated: 23:31 17 May 2009
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So all those nefarious plots, the terror cells under the bed, the scheming evildoers whose awful engines of destruction needed to be rooted out by spying on, well, everyone? The extra surveillance has yielded few prosecutions, a tremendous shocker I’m sure.

There are a few possible explanations for this. One is that the surveillance (which is mostly secret) is uncovering all kinds of terrorist activity, but all of it had to be dealt with silently, sans publicity. Not an argument that makes much sense, but it makes even less sense when you note that terrorism prosecutions have declined: surely the vast spying machinery would uncover some plots that could be prosecuted, especially when such prosecutions would be fantastic publicity for all of the involved bureaucracies.

Another explanation is the the existence of the surveillance programs magically prevents illegal activity in the arena of terrorism by stopping the involved actors even before they’ve broken any laws (hence the lack of prosecutions). Hard to see any way to support that claim, though, and proof of it seems simply impossible. (Yes, the burden of proof should be to prove effectiveness, since these programs violate all kinds of civil rights and give vast powers to unaccountable individuals and organizations.)

Of course, the most likely explanation is the obvious one: the “terror threat” always was, and remains, an excuse for power-grabbing, a way to scare people into ceding ever more of their rights with the false promise that doing so will make them safer.

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