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Orlando Is Why We Need Surveillance

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Orlando Is Why We Need Surveillance

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Police cars and fire trucks outside the Pulse night club in Orlando

The FBI had the Orlando gunman under watch — twice — and, after much consideration, decided to stop following him. Was this a mistake? Obviously, tragically so.

But in this massive lost opportunity to prevent a slaughter dwells a positive sign for our ability to stop future attacks. Law enforcement at least had its eye on him. Scarier would have been that it had never heard of Omar Mateen.

Protests against government surveillance programs tend to grow in the quiet stretches between terrorist outrages. Absence of immediate fear is when the critics can best downplay the stakes — that even one miscreant can kill large numbers, and with weapons far deadlier than assault rifles.

It’s when privacy advocates have the most success portraying surveillance programs as highly personal invasions of ordinary folks’ privacy. Actually, there’s nothing very personal in the National Security Agency’s collection of our communications metadata. Basically, computers rummage through zillions of emails and such in search of patterns to flag. The humans following leads have zero interest in your complaints about Obamacare, as some foes of the surveillance programs have ludicrously claimed.

In the Orlando case, co-workers had alerted the authorities to Mateen’s radical rantings. The FBI put him on a terrorist watchlist, monitoring him for months. He was taken off when investigators concluded he was just mouthing off. The FBI had reason to probe him again, but again he was turned loose.

That was a failure, but a failure highlighting a weakness in the surveillance laws. The FBI dropped the case because the standard for showing probable cause — evidence of a crime or intent to commit one — is too high for needle-in-haystack terrorism investigations.

(Note that a local sheriff was able to use Mateen’s ravings as reason to have him removed from security guard duty at the St. Lucie County Courthouse in Fort Pierce, Florida.)

The bureau clearly erred in expecting a real terrorist to be informed. That Mateen had expressed sympathy for both al-Qaida and the Islamic State — groups in conflict with each other — was apparently seen as a sign that the man wasn’t seriously engaged in their politics.

Perhaps not, but he seriously approved of their bloody activities. That should have spelled danger, especially when added to his history of mental instability and spousal abuse and possible sexual confusion (an apparently new consideration).

But the FBI has been dealing with thousands of cases of potential homegrown terrorists not unlike Mateen. It must also consider that expressing support for a terrorist organization is protected by the First Amendment right to free speech.

We need a new standard for potential terrorists inspired by online jihadist propaganda. Meanwhile, the public should back law enforcement’s stance on encryption. Recall the FBI’s battle to force Apple to unlock the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, the San Bernardino gunman.

Privacy advocates have harshly rapped President Obama for defending the government surveillance programs he himself once criticized. There’s a simple difference between them and him (and then and now): Obama receives the daily threat reports, and they don’t.

Government surveillance programs do need rules. Court review is important. But it simply isn’t true that public safety can be maintained in the age of lone-wolf terrorism without considerable surveillance. And the risks advocates ask us to take on in the name of privacy should be addressed honestly.

The parade of major terrorist attacks — Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels and now Orlando — has sped up. The more horror the less the public cares about reining in surveillance activities. Defenders of privacy should recognize this reality and more carefully choose their battles. The quiet times seem no more.

 

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

Photo: Police cars and fire trucks are seen outside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Orlando Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

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Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop’s nationally syndicated column appears in over 150 newspapers. Media Matters ranks her column 20th nationally in total readership and 14th in large newspaper concentration. Harrop has been a guest on PBS, MSNBC, Fox News and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and is a frequent voice on NPR and talk radio stations in every time zone as well.

A Loeb Award finalist for economic commentary in 2004 and again in 2011, Harrop was also a Scripps Howard Award finalist for commentary in 2010. She has been honored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and the New England Associated Press News Executives Association has given her five awards.

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7 Comments

  1. CrankyToo June 16, 2016

    Horseshit! We have more to fear from a government which suppresses civil liberties in the name of “security” than we do from the random religious zealot.

    Reply
    1. A_Real_Einstein June 16, 2016

      Famous last words. They have thwarted more terrorist attempts then we will ever know. Why do you think that is?

      Reply
    2. RED June 16, 2016

      Absolutely!! We’ve already turned the laughable “Land of the Free” in to the largest imprisoner and warehouser of human beings on Earth. But, of course, we only imprison all those folks for your safety. I guess it’s fine if it’s not you or your family being targeted, at least until it is you and your family being targeted. I gotta question anyone who can look around at cops murdering folks and assaulting them, occupying neighborhoods, squeezing the poor for tax revenue in the form of fines, and thinks “yeah, let’s give law enforce more access and power!” Simply stunning!!

      Reply
    3. johninPCFL June 17, 2016

      The GOP is pushing forward the surveillance society, where we need police in every bedroom (no gay sex), every doctor’s office, every public restroom, every mosque, etc. The last thing we need is to over-react to this event. Is it tragic that four dozen people died at this madman’s hand? Absolutely.
      It’s as tragic that it’s the normal number of Americans that are shot and killed every single day. Half are suicides and half are murders. We have far more to be concerned about from our “friends and neighbors” than from foreign-born (or American-born) terrorists.

      Reply
  2. RED June 16, 2016

    Thanks Harrop, but there’s already plenty of information out there on how to turn a frightened and shaky democracy in to a fascist state, we don’t really need anymore info.

    Reply
  3. Granite Skyline June 16, 2016

    Thank you, Froma Harrop.

    Government surveillance programs do need rules. Court review is important. But it simply isn’t true that public safety can be maintained in the age of lone-wolf terrorism without considerable surveillance.

    It’s a delicate balance.

    Reply
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