Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Another Program Leaked by Press

The news media have gleefully disclosed and thereby made less useful another one of the government’s tools in the war against Islamist extremism. The government had obtained access to international financial transaction records, in particular, through access to a database known as SWIFT. The program provided access to a variety of transactions. My understanding is that most transactions subject to tracing are international transactions. In this way, the government of the United States has an opportunity to find and evaluate terrorist financing patterns. But, now that the program has been talked about widely in the media, it is likely that even unintelligent terrorists will begin being more careful about wiring money. Many people believe that the program is unlikely to be successful because terrorists will have already understood that their financial transactions would be under scrutiny. I do not believe that this is a justifiable criticism. It is true that the most clever and intelligent of our terrorist adversaries probably are trained in covert operations and are careful to avoid transactions that are traceable. But, even clever people are sometimes desperate. Sometimes when the level of desperation rises, people take risks. And sometimes those risks lead to them being caught. It is also the case that not everyone who engages in terrorism is a well-trained mastermind. In particular, as we succeed in killing and capturing members of the Al Qaeda network and other terrorist organizations, less trained and less intelligent people will rise to fill their empty ranks. These new people are more likely to make mistakes. Their mistakes can then be capitalized upon.

Sadly, the New York Times has made that capitalization more difficult by revealing another legal government program. This program falls once again under the heading of what I discussed in an earlier blog posting: Synthetic Privacy. In the modern world, we have come to have unreasonable expectations about privacy. We not only want things that are actually done in the quiet of our own homes to remain private, but we seek to require third parties to essentially cover up for us and keep information away from others even though that information is of necessity shared with dozens or perhaps even hundreds of people. We do things in public, engage in public transactions, produce records that are shared with dozens of people, and then we somehow expect the government to take measures to make sure that the government cannot find out about what we did that many other people already know about. This obsession with creating artificial privacy—privacy about things that are not really private—is perhaps understandable, but inappropriate during wartime. While our homes and papers should remain secure from unreasonable searches and seizures, there is no reason why statistics about telephone patterns or wire transfers shouldn’t be known by the government and used to eliminate militant Islamists bent on murdering hundreds of innocent people. We need to keep in mind the difference between genuine privacy and embarrassment and synthetic privacy that provides no real help to anyone except our enemies.

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