After San Bernardino, Time To Step Up Domestic Surveillance

Joanne Butler | Former Staffer, House Ways and Means Committee

Wednesday’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino prompted the usual reactions: more gun control versus more guns carried by citizens. It’s time we looked at different answers – from the United Kingdom.

First is the U.K.’s intensive use of Closed Circuit Television monitoring.

If you’ve ever watched a contemporary British TV crime drama, you’ll notice how the police begin their investigation by watching the CCTV video from the spot nearest the crime. Compare that to a U.S. crime drama, where police have to find and persuade witnesses to speak.

Now consider the 2013 Boston Marathon attack. What if there had been more intensive CCTV coverage of the route, with trained people monitoring the television screens? One of the watchers might have spotted the Tsarnaev brother who left the bomb-laden backpack in the crowd and called in the bomb squad. The FBI and police did use CCTV – to identify the Tsarnaev brothers after the bombing.

Can human beings spot such actions from a television monitor? I think the answer is yes. I’ve known some retired Secret Service agents and they were trained in techniques to spot potentially dangerous people. Similar training could be given to the CCTV watchers.

While having highly trained people watching CCTV feeds 24/7 from several hundred thousand cameras is not feasible, in my opinion simply having the cameras live and recording would make a huge difference.

The U.K. used their CCTV cameras to break down the power of the Irish Republican Army. Prior to the CCTV era, the IRA would set off bombs in subway stations, in crowds – patterns that unfortunately are happening frequently in America today.

CCTV was the U.K’s weapon in a war of attrition. Law enforcement used CCTV to identify the bomber, then it was ‘catch the bomber and put him in prison.’ Or it was ‘defuse the bomb, catch the bomber and put him in prison.’

It changed how the newer generations of Northern Ireland’s Catholic young men viewed the IRA. Being a martyr or hero to the cause became less attractive when chances were excellent of getting caught and spending the rest of one’s life in jail.  

The Brits also seem to have a different attitude when it comes to monitoring telecommunications for security purposes. Since 2012, the British government has monitored all phone calls, texts and website visits initiated in the United Kingdom.

In America, libertarians and others were hysterical over the National Security Agency’s collection of telecommunications originating in the United States. In reaction to the 9/11 bombings, the USA Freedom act gave the NSA permission to collect and retain telecomm data, but that authority expired last week, on November 28. The British newspaper The Guardian hailed it as a victory for Eric Snowden (the ex-CIA leaker who is living in asylum in Russia), but I believe it is a victory for ISIS.

Libertarians say it’s an infringement of our civil rights to have the government monitor our telecomm activities. My response is: I don’t think the government is interested in my texts to the spa where I get my facials – but I hope it is interested in people in our country who are communicating with people in Syria, Iran, Somalia, etc., as well as those in ISIS-friendly places such as Mollenbeek in Belgium (the headquarters of the Paris bombers).

We are in the 21st century, not the agrarian 18th, and our enemies are fighting a war using technology. It saddened me to hear the FBI agent in charge of the San Bernardino case admit today how law enforcement was struggling to figure out the terrorists’ digital footprint and that “it’s not a three-day process.”

The terrorists (a husband and wife) had smashed their cell phones and threw them in a trash can. They also damaged their computers’ hard drives and other electronic devices before leaving their house for the last time.

If America had a system in place that was similar to what the U.K. has, deciphering the terrorists’ digital footprint might go easier and faster. What’s wrong with that?

Here’s an answer: back in the 1990s, I attended a lecture by a libertarian who was incensed over how some states were putting bar codes on driver’s licenses, telling us the state had no business collecting information on car drivers, and how it was the thin edge of the wedge to Big Brother.

I wonder how this man felt after 9/11. I wonder what he would tell the families of those killed in San Bernadino this week – did they die to save our civil liberties, so the government cannot collect telecomm data from dangerous people in America?

If so, their deaths are too high a price for such things. As the Bible (Ecclesiastes 9:4) tells us: “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” Amen to that.

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