A Response to Hadley Beeman on the Encryption vs Security Debate

An oft-repeated canard offers only a dead-end

An oft-repeated canard offers only a dead-end

Former UK Digital Technology Advisor Hadley Beeman has penned a new piece on the post-Manchester revival of the “encryption vs security” false paradigm that’s worth reading, both for what it says and what it avoids.

What’s missing from this piece is any mention of the true underlying problem: taking government claims of a need for a certain capability at face value.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. government intelligence and law enforcement officials, with a lot of help from House and Senate members on both sides of the aisle, were able to sell the falsehood that if only we’d had enough information the attacks could’ve been stopped. But as the subsequent Congressional and 9/11 Commission investigations found, the government had all the data it needed — the failure was in the CIA, NSA, and FBI “connecting the dots” (as the 9/11 Commission observed) by properly sharing the available data at the time.

As we’ve seen with so many post-9/11 terror attacks in Europe and North America, the same problem persists among the law enforcement and intelligence agencies of the Western world. And the problem is even deeper than that. As I noted in a Huffington Post piece nearly two years ago:

Indeed, some have argued that many American domestic terrorism cases have largely been manufactured by the FBI itself. And while that is certainly not true in every case, it is true that like all other federal agencies involved in the seemingly endless “War on Terror,” the Bureau has a built-in, bureaucratic incentive for launching these operations.
In a documentary on the investigation and prosecution of four Newburgh, New York men on terrorism charges, former FBI Assistant Director Thomas Fuentes admitted that “If you’re submitting budget proposals for a law enforcement agency, for an intelligence agency, you’re not going to submit the proposal that ‘We won the war on terror and everything’s great,’ cuz the first thing that’s gonna happen is your budget’s gonna be cut in half. You know, it’s my opposite of Jesse Jackson’s ‘Keep Hope Alive’ — it’s ‘Keep Fear Alive.’ Keep it alive.”
Fuentes’ articulation of the bureaucratic self-justification at the heart of American National Security State is the antithesis of the vision of The Founders.

Indeed, Hadley’s premise that “In the UK, we ask (and pay our taxes for) our government to keep us safe” is one many Americans would recognize and likely agree with. Except the political history of “the English speaking peoples” started with a quest to be safe from coercive depredations perpetrated by their own governments. In the long line of political reforms running from the Magna Carta to the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, the primary theme was one of restraining government power to imprison, or even arbitrarily kill, the individual citizen.

Hancock, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Washington, and the other leaders of the American Revolution were united in the belief in an ideal: that true security for society could only be obtained and maintained by the protection of individual rights from abridgement at the hands of the government — unless of course you were a slave or a woman. To say that the Enlightment-inspired “ideal” of the Revolution is still being perfected is something of an understatement. But the basic struggle to ensure that citizens are protected from governmental assaults on their rights and their persons — whether it be Black Lives Matter activists, Keystone XL pipeline protestors, etc. — remains at the core of not just the American experiment in democracy but of the West as a whole.

What endangers the march towards greater freedom in times of threat from terrorist attacks is not the terrorists themselves, but our reaction — and more often than not, over-reaction — to their savage acts of violence. And this is where Hadley’s reference to the “keep us safe” mentality comes into play. Western politicians, security services, and their counterparts in much of the mainstream press have propagated the lying illusion that somehow it is possible for Western societies to be both 100% safe and remain functioning democracies.

That falsehood is the most lethal political poison infecting Western societies today. It is, bit by bit, turning Western publics into quivering cowards in the face of a threat that, while real, pales in comparison to that posed by the likes of Napoleon, Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union — all of whom were defeated by previous generations of Westerners who ultimately valued their freedom above all else, and were willing to die to preserve it for their families, friends, and neighbors.

In the Age of Salafist Terrorism, for politicians on both sides of the Atlantic it’s often simply easier to pass yet another law giving still more sweeping surveillance authorities to intelligence and law enforcement organizations that have demonstrated time and again that they have failed to learn from their own intelligence gathering, analysis, and sharing failures, rather than forcing those same entities to confront their shortcomings, change the way they operate, and improve their counterterrorism performance.

Until that core problem is addressed, it will be impossible to have a truly intellectually and politically honest debate about the reasons Salafist terrorists continue to induce us to wreak havoc on our own rights, and those of our Arab/Muslim neighbors.