Why a Top Terrorism Analyst Thinks Government Surveillance Has Gone Too Far

Military analysis.
June 7 2013 4:35 PM

“The Foundation of a Very Oppressive State”

Why one of America’s top terrorism analysts thinks U.S. government surveillance has gone too far.

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“The point,” he said, “is that if we are fearful of what might be, and if there is no visible end to this—you can always fear what might be—then there will be no occasion for reconsidering the measures we’ve put in place.”

Jenkins thinks the occasions should be mandated. It appears that these programs are renewed periodically. After the Guardian reprinted a court document allowing the NSA to mine data from Verizon, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, revealed that this was a routine renewal of a long-standing program. But Jenkins is bothered that the renewal is so routine. “I don’t know if it’s every year or five years or seven years,” he said, “but somebody should have to come back and say, ‘These are the measures in place, they were useful in the following circumstances.’ Then a choice should be made on whether to keep them in place. The government will always argue that they should be, but at least they should have to make the argument, again and again.”

This means Congress should take its oversight responsibilities more seriously—and the debate should be conducted more broadly, as much of it as possible in public.


After this week’s news stories, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, released a statement, describing what the program is and is not. Jenkins, after reading a few lines from this statement, said, “I cannot figure out why this was classified to begin with. It should have been in the public domain all along. The fact is, terrorists know we’re watching their communications. Well, some of them, it seems, are idiots, but if they were all idiots, we wouldn’t need a program like this. The sophisticated ones, the ones we’re worried about, they know this. There are debates we can have in public without really giving away sensitive collection secrets. It’s a risk, but these are issues that affect all of us and our way of life.”

What happens if—after a genuine public debate, true congressional oversight, and a FISA court with teeth—it is agreed that all these programs should continue? “Well, if that’s what we want, that’s democracy,” Jenkins said. “The problem now is there’s no structure in place to ensure that this is what we want.”

Back in 1974, in his first monograph on the subject, International Terrorism: A New Mode of Conflict, Jenkins wrote:

Owing to technological developments and changes in the political environment, power—defined crudely as the capacity to kill, destroy, disrupt, cause alarm, and compel society to divert vast resources to security—is coming into the hands of smaller and smaller groups whose grievances, real or imaginary, it would not always be possible to satisfy. How democracies deal with this, and remain democracies, is one of the major challenges we face in the late twentieth century.

Almost 40 years later, well into the 21st century, he now said, “That’s still the major challenge.”