October 11, 2001 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security
It's a question at least as old as democracy itself: When does
the cost of security become too high for a nation dedicated to
protecting individual liberty?
According to some, the Bush administration has reached that
threshold with its anti-terrorism proposal, which Congress is now
As they move forward, our elected officials need to consider --
thoughtfully and carefully -- the relationship between liberty and
security. The fact is: Liberty depends on security, and freedom as
we know it in America depends on eliminating the threat of
terrorism from our lives.
Yes, lawmakers must do everything in their power to preserve the
basic liberties protected by the U.S. Constitution, such as the
right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. It may be
permissible to suspend some rights temporarily in a state of
emergency -- as in a formal declaration of war by Congress -- but
so far this hasn't been done.
Yet Americans don't have a constitutional right to complete
privacy if it endangers the lives of others. We shouldn't deny
investigators access to potentially critical information gained by
foreign intelligence sources merely because the methods used to
obtain that information don't conform to constitutional standards.
Nor should we risk exposing sensitive intelligence information on
terrorists in open court proceedings.
The administration's anti-terrorism package, for the most part,
strikes the right balance between privacy and security. It would
update wiretapping laws to conform to changing technologies, permit
information-sharing between law-enforcement and intelligence
agencies, and keep classified information from leaking in court. It
would also let the government detain non-Americans deemed a threat
to national security.
The proposal is not perfect. For example, time limits should be
placed on the detention of foreigners with suspected terrorist
ties. And we need to ensure that information collected on U.S.
citizens in the conduct of a security-related investigation isn't
leaked or shared with anyone inside or outside of government who
has no need or right to see it.
But we must realize the nature of the terrorist threat, and our
laws must change to deal with it.
As we all attempt to sort through the competing claims and
emotions that confront us, we should keep one undeniable fact
foremost in our minds: Civil liberties are in greater danger from a
"business as usual" attitude than they are from the minor changes
proposed in the administration's anti-terrorist package.
To understand why, imagine what would happen if the war on
terrorism fails. Repeated attacks would create panic, and a
terrible crackdown on civil liberties would ensue. As the casualty
toll grew, the calls for draconian measures would make the rather
modest provisions in the administration's anti-terrorist package
pale by comparison. Over time, fear and loathing -- particularly if
America fell victim to an attack from chemical, biological or
nuclear weapons -- would create a tremendous demand to restrict
liberties in the name of security.
To prevent this, we must act quickly and decisively in the short
run in order to protect Americans' constitutional liberties in the
This means the foreign campaign must be as broad as necessary to
ensure that the threat of terrorism isn't merely contained, but
defeated. If the international effort merely strikes at one man,
one group or network of terrorists without fundamentally altering
the policies of the regimes that protect them, another terrorist
leader, group or network will arise in its place. The more forceful
and effective the foreign anti-terrorist campaign, the less
pressure there will be against civil liberties at home.
Americans will never be free so long as terrorists threaten our homeland. It would be ironic indeed if an inordinate fear of losing some rights were enough to deny the nation the tools it needs to stop the very thing that would doom the Constitution -- the scourge of terrorism.
Kim R. Holmes is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, where Edwin Meese III is the Ronald Reagan distinguished fellow in public policy and chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
Distributed Nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune Wire