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Thomas L. Friedman: Data mining needed to prevent another Sept. 11

  • New York Times
  • Published Friday, June 14, 2013, at 12 a.m.

I’m glad I live in a country with people who are vigilant in defending civil liberties. But as I listen to the debate about the disclosure of two government programs designed to track suspected phone and e-mail contacts of terrorists, I do wonder if some of those who unequivocally defend this disclosure are behaving as if Sept. 11 never happened – that the only thing we have to fear is government intrusion in our lives, not the intrusion of those who gather in secret cells in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan and plot how to topple our tallest buildings or bring down U.S. airliners with bombs planted inside underwear, tennis shoes or computer printers.

Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another Sept. 11 – abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another Sept. 11. That is, I worry about something that’s already happened once – that was staggeringly costly – and that terrorists aspire to repeat.

I believe that if there is one more Sept. 11 – or, worse, an attack involving nuclear material – it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. I fear that if there were another Sept. 11, 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear most.

That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses – and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress – to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.

So I don’t believe that Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this secret material, is some heroic whistle-blower. No, I believe Snowden is someone who needed a whistle-blower. He needed someone to challenge him with the argument that we don’t live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real, not imagined, threats without using big data under constant judicial review.

To be sure, secret programs, like the virtually unregulated drone attacks, can lead to real excesses that have to be checked. But here is what is also real, as David Simon, the creator of HBO’s “The Wire,” wrote in a recent essay:

“Those planes really did hit those buildings. And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically motivated enemy. And, for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks.”

And, I’d add, not just bloviating. Imagine how many real restrictions to our beautiful open society we would tolerate if there were another attack on the scale of Sept. 11. Pardon me if I blow that whistle.

Thomas L. Friedman writes for the New York Times.

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