Domestic surveillance — we need it now more than ever

In his observations on terrorism in Belgium, John writes that electronic surveillance of some sort very likely played a role in enabling the authorities to strike before the terrorists could carry out their planned attack. John is right. But we don’t need to look to Belgium to see the critical role such surveillance plays in protecting against terrorism.

Recently, authorities here in the U.S. were able to prevent an attack on the Capitol building. According to John Boehner, electronic surveillance was instrumental in the discovery learning of the planned attack:

[Boehner] said law enforcement officials “would have never known” about the Capitol Hill threat without the program, in which U.S. intelligence officials collect information under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The law lets investigators eavesdrop on Americans under certain conditions.

Boehner’s comment reflects a renewed respect for our surveillance programs on Capitol Hill:

While steady leaks about the scope of the NSA program — which collects data on Americans’ Internet and cell phone use — have resulted in a national debate over the balance between privacy and security, recent developments have shifted the tone in Washington.

The political class, it seems, has been mugged by reality.

But how is it that so many in the political class began blocking out the reality of the terrorist threat within a half dozen or so years after 9/11? The answer, I suppose, is a double dose of wishful thinking. Everyone wishes (1) that the threat of domestic terrorism were de minimis and (2) that this threat, at whatever level it may rise to, could be effectively countered with no infringement on privacy.

The first wish is unrealistic and clearly has been since 2001. The second wish, in the terms stated above, is also patently unrealistic.

But the threat of domestic terrorism can be countered to an appreciable degree with no undue infringement on privacy through the very surveillance policies we have used since 9/11, but which have come under attack from both the left and the right. Boehner exaggerated only slightly when he said, “our government doesn’t spy on Americans unless they are Americans who are doing things that tip off law enforcement about an imminent threat.”

Where is the concrete evidence that surveillance programs have meaningfully infringed on the privacy of Americans who don’t associate with terrorists? As John says, the privacy concerns expressed by the likes of Rand Paul are almost entirely hypothetical.

This question of concrete harm has been overlooked by those who have succumbed to the privacy hysteria. Maybe now it won’t be.

And maybe now we will restore proper funding for surveillance programs that keep us safe. The overall federal budget for intelligence activities (including military intelligence and the rest of the intelligence community) has fallen dramatically since 2010, according to Fox News. In 2010, it peaked at $80 billion. For fiscal 2015, it is $66 billion.

Events not only in Belgium, but right here in the U.S., demonstrate that it’s past time to reverse this trend.