Terrorism expert says Americans safer in post-9/11 world, but at cost of personal liberties
By JOHN SAMMON | Santa Cruz Sentinel | Published: February 19, 2012
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — An expert on counter-terrorism intelligence gathering, in noting the mistakes that led to the Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks, said Americans are safer today than they were, but at a cost of some personal liberties.
"I think we have moved toward greater security at the expense of liberty," said Erik Dahl, assistant professor of national security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "We have fewer civil liberties."
Dahl's comments came at a meeting of the Lutheran Women's Missionary League at the Messiah Lutheran Church in Santa Cruz, Calif., last week. He said increased airport security is one example of giving up personal freedom for greater safety.
"There is greater scrutiny," he said. "What concerns me is that law enforcement is looking at all of us more closely, and we don't know what it all entails."
For example, Dahl explained that the government has a "no-fly" list of people to prohibit from airlines. The list is secret.
"The passage of the Patriot Act made it easier for domestic surveillance, and the FBI has expanded what is called a National Security Letter," Dahl said. "This allows a subpoena where an agency can demand the records on a person, or a business and its customers, and the subpoena doesn't need to be signed by a judge. It doesn't have to go through the normal judicial process."
Dahl said this represents an increase in government power that most Americans are not aware of.
He also outlined the history of intelligence-gathering lapses that led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the al-Qaida attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Both disasters took place because intelligence gathering was insufficiently coordinated and characterized by a lack of imagination, he said.
"In these cases they didn't connect the dots," Dahl said.
There were also eerie similarities in the lead-up to both attacks.
In the 1930s, war games exercises were held in which U.S. military officers envisioned Japan as a likely aggressor. A report was also issued in January 1941, in which U.S. Navy personnel identified Pearl Harbor as a potential target for a Japanese strike.
In 1998, Richard Clarke, at the time an adviser on the National Security Council, envisioned a scenario in which a bomb-laden Lear jet piloted by terrorists might be nose-dived into a target in the U.S.
Osama bin Laden was also identified as a possible terrorist threat by intelligence gatherers in the summer of 2001, before the World Trade Center bombing.
"In both cases, action was not taken to stop them from happening," Dahl noted.
Since 9/11, Dahl said new offices and organizations have been created to combat terrorism, such as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counter Terrorism Center and a network of intelligence gathering offices called "fusion" centers. The nearest one in Northern California is located in San Francisco.
Dahl said the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force seem to be doing good work arresting terrorists in this country before they carry out attacks.
"Most of these plots were foiled not by satellites looking down from space or by Navy SEALs like the kind who got bin Laden, but by good old-fashioned policing using domestic informants and tips from the public," he said.
He said that while it's impossible to guarantee a terrorist attack won't take place, threats can be minimized by aggressive coordination and greater intelligence-sharing between agencies.
Distributed by MCT Information Services