Underestimating Risk in the Surveillance Debate
December 9, 2014
Americans are reluctant to accept terrorism is part of their daily lives, but attacks have been planned or attempted against American targets (usually airliners or urban areas) almost every year since 9/11. Europe faces even greater risk, given the thousands of EU citizens who will return hardened and radicalized from fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The threat of attack is easy to exaggerate, but that does not mean it is nonexistent. The constant planning and preparation for attack by terrorist groups is not apparent to the public. The dilemma in assessing risk is that it is discontinuous. There can be long periods with no noticeable activity, only to have the apparent calm explode. The debate over how to reform communications surveillance has discounted this risk. Communications surveillance is an essential law enforcement and intelligence tool. There is no replacement for it. Some suggestions for alternative approaches to surveillance, such as the idea that the National Security Agency (NSA) only track known or suspected terrorists, reflect wishful thinking, as it is the unknown terrorist who will inflict the greatest harm.