Thursday, August 15, 2013

Yes, Let's Debate Security vs. Freedom

Strident voices have been busy of late proclaiming Edward Snowden a heroic whistleblower for disclosing details of U.S. intelligence gathering. Less loud, but more thoughtful, commentators argue that he is a traitor whose systematic leaking of classified information has seriously damaged our security.

Honest disagreement is possible about which label Snowden deserves. However, it is hard to disagree with President Obama’s statement that it is time for a national discussion of how much personal freedom and privacy Americans should be willing to sacrifice in the interests of security. That discussion now is occurring—in the media, on the internet, and in gatherings of families and friends. 

Although I believe we must continue to combat terrorism, I think we have overreacted to 9/11 in ways large and small.

The huge mistakes are obvious. Invading Iraq on a pretext and hanging around for years in Afghanistan at tremendous costs in lives and dollars have done incalculable damage to the strength of our nation and our position in the world. We can’t undo those blunders, but at least we gradually are withdrawing from untenable positions in the Middle East.

I want to be there during searches
Personal experiences color my thoughts about overdoing security measures in smaller ways. Security people did it right the first time my luggage was searched in an airport after 9/11. I was allowed to stand next to the searcher and observe every move. And, my belongings were handled carefully and returned to my suitcases in a semblance of order. This was exactly how our luggage was searched several times after airline trips to Mexico before 9/11. I have no objection to that sort of procedure.

More recently, however, both I and beautiful wife Sandy had our luggage searched when we were not present. Apparently, the system had changed, and not for the better. When we opened bags after the trips, our belongings were in complete disarray.

Searching one’s property without a warrant or some reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing when the owner is not present to me is a clear violation of constitutional law. There have been documented cases of security personnel stealing items from luggage they were inspecting, another reason this practice should be stopped. If requiring that the person whose property is searched be present causes travel delays, so be it.

Several years after 9/11, Sandy was taken out of a line in the Kalamazoo airport for a strip search. Admittedly, she appears to fit the classic profile of a terrorist. On tip toes, she can stretch to a menacing 5 foot 2. The majority of her hair is gray. She is more than slightly beyond the age associated with optimum physical strength. Bottom line: Sandy is not a particularly threatening person.

It probably is necessary for security people to pick subjects at random for intensive searches to avoid charges of profiling, but what followed Sandy’s selection was uncalled for and served no purpose.

First, she was told to leave her purse, ticket, and boarding pass behind as she was led to a search booth. She refused. After some argument, the security types allowed her to take the items along.

A man entered the booth and instructed Sandy to remove her clothing. She demanded that he be replaced by a woman. After more argument, her demand was met. (I later advised her that the experience might have been enhanced had she stuck with the man, but stopped saying that when she obviously failed to admire my brilliant wit.)

Sandy refused bad treatment and made her refusal stick. How many others passively follow orders? We haven’t made trips by air in the last few years, so perhaps the offensive and probably illegal invasions of privacy have been modified. If not, they should be.

How much freedom and privacy should we be willing to give up in the interest of security? There’s a reasonable balance to be struck. Perfection isn't possible, but we need to discuss the issues and make necessary changes in the systems now in place.

8 comments: said...

Interesting debate. For what it is worth here are my thoughts.

1/ Thanks to the outcry over "racial profiling' everyone is subject to search these days. While that seems overboard, we know radical Muslims have been using women and children to carry suicide bombs. I am sure your Sandy looks harmless enough, but who knows? Certainly not some bored TSA person.

The last time I flew no one searched me, although they made me take off my shoes and went through my luggage. A seasoned traveler, I had the bag packed to ensure a quick and easy search for the searcher and wore shoes easy to slip on and off.

2. Regarding Edward Snowden. He is culpable of breaking the oath you and I took as government workers and for that he should be punished. As for outing some deep dark secret, I am waiting to hear what it is. Anyone who thinks that Homeland Defense isn't conducting searches of metadata is naive. More worrisome to me is what the IRS is getting up to. Everyday I hear about some other outrage, as I am sure you do too. Today it is ramdom letters to small business people accusing them of cheating on their taxes..i.e. accusing them of NOT claiming all their income. While I am sure some people do this as well as some business, this may not be the best way to catch tax cheaters.

3/ Read the new book Brotherhood on the Muslim Brotherhood. They frighten me more than any snooping by the US government, at least for now. If they get power here the way they did in Turkey, then I will worry as should every woman including Sandy. Dianne


Dick Klade said...

Dianne. Good points. I fully agree about the Muslim Brotherhood. They should be considered a bunch of thugs.

All my experiences, including two audits and many personal contacts with IRS folks, have been good. But lately there are disturbing reports that some practices are open to question. I think a new broom at the top will put things back on the right track in that agency.

Tom Sightings said...

I confess to almost complete ignorance on the issue. I am certainly willing to take my shoes off and have my baggage checked -- and I hope they're checking the other baggage too. I want to be safe on my airplane (not that I fly very often). But that's incredible -- they were going to strip your wife and have her searched by a man!?! That can't be in the rule book.

PiedType said...

I've complained till I'm blue in the face about government overreach, starting with the Patriot Act. Most recently I was angered by Obama's flat assertion that the NSA doesn't spy on Americans. Et tu, Brute? History teaches us that leaders and governments, once they've seized or been given power, never willingly give it up.

I'll be quiet now. Otherwise I'd rant for pages.

Kay Dennison said...

Standing ovation to Sandy!!!!

"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

I've seen this to Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, et al and I really don't care who said it but I do agree with them!!!!

Kay said...

Good for Sandy! I'm glad she stood up for herself. It's rather shocking that they were going to have a man do the search though. I've never encountered anything like that.... yet. Thank goodness. Now, I'll know what to do.

I don't know what I think of Snowden. I do know he's not a hero though. I don't think you can compare him to Daniel Ellsberg.

Dick Klade said...

I agree, Kay. Ellsberg stayed out of sight only long enough to get the "Pentagon Papers" into the hands of responsible media and elected representatives. Then he proudly stood up face any legal consequences. True whistleblowers like Ellsberg call attention to misconduct for moral reasons, not to gain personal recognition or profit. Snowden fled the country, and had no ethical reason to share U.S. secrets with other nations to make his point.

Bill Hamilton said...

This was one of your better posts. We have flown just two times since 9/11, and have vowed to not try it again until freedoms have priorities renewed over those for security. And our difficulties didn't compare at all with those your wife experienced!